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Play dates with pets

Riley's Place offers play therapy to special kids one hug at a time

Click on pictures to enlarge and see captions.

By Scott Delucchi, a board member of Riley's Place and a senior vice president with the Peninsula Humane Society & SPCA, which has placed five of its shelter animals with Riley's Place.

If animals could talk or text, Riley's Place would outrank Justin Bieber in Facebook friends. For now, the volunteer-powered nonprofit leasing space on a Woodside property is growing one hug at a time when special kids experience its unique hoof and fur therapy.

Founded in 2009, Riley's Place is dedicated to enriching the lives of children on the San Francisco Peninsula experiencing chronic or life-threatening health problems and/or challenging family situations.

Children, who've spent far too much of their young lives around lab coats, blood draws, and the inside of MRI machines and transitional homes, can kick-up dust in a barn where they might groom a miniature horse, ride in a pony cart, go nose-to-nose with a Nigerian Dwarf goat, or cuddle the best laptops a bunny, hen or guinea pig.

Programs offered through Riley's Place are free. Their onsite play dates with four-legged friends, visits to private homes for children too ill to travel, and time spent at Ronald McDonald House and Haven Family House encourage and facilitate children's interaction with animals, allowing them to experience the joy and healing that spending time with animals can bring.

Riley Church, the inspiration, was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor in 2004 and passed away two years later at age 14. Near the end, when Riley could no longer travel, friends brought a miniature horse to her San Carlos home. The look of pure joy on Riley's face when the horse walked to her and stayed there with her head in Riley's lap was the event that led to Riley's Place.

In 2009, the National Center for Equine Facilitated Therapy invited Riley's Place to share its lovely, 12-acre Woodside property and they've made the most of the sweetheart lease, adding a goat jungle gym, bunny cottage, garden and tree fort with a million-dollar view.

A Tuff Shed for office work, a passenger vehicle to bring kids on site, and gift cards to Portola Valley Feed top their wish list; annual expenses for a miniature horse run just over $4,000.

Riley's Place is lean, smart and resourceful. In well-run nonprofits, 75 or 80 cents of every dollar funds programs and services versus "overhead." At Riley's Place, it's closer to 85 cents.

The vision and leadership comes from Wendy Mattes, who was Riley Church's riding instructor at Webb Ranch. This superwoman has served as the organization's only executive director, collecting no salary; she cultivates board members and volunteers, books visits, posts on Facebook, oversees animal husbandry, and writes the best thank-you's, whether donations are alfalfa hay or checks.

She recruits board members to complement her skills: an attorney, builder, retired Atherton police chief Glenn Nielsen, an equine veterinarian, Riley's former pediatric oncologist at Lucile Packard, and seasoned nonprofit executives.

Riley Church's parents, Andrea and Martin Church of San Carlos, have been involved from the beginning and now serve on the board.

But, one visit says much more than a peek at the books or board roster. It's why Riley's Place holds a monthly open house.

Somewhere between hearing Riley's story, petting a "mini," and climbing the tree fort, adults get why it's so meaningful for kids to feel like kids, not patients, when Riley's Place becomes their place for the day.

==I Visit Rileys-Place.org for more information. To arrange for an onsite visit or off-site visit to a facility, contact Wendy Mattes at (650) 703-5199 or send an email to wendy@rileys-place.org.

CELEBRATION: Riley's Place is celebrating its second anniversary with a benefit dinner and concert on Saturday, June 11, from 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m., at the Palo Alto Elks Lodge, 4249 El Camino Real. The event will feature a performance by the Italian tenor Pasquale Esposito. Tickets at $150 each (deductible portion is $65) are limited. For more information or to buy tickets for this event that directly benefits Riley's Place, call (650) 703-5199 or email wendy@rileys-place.org.

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