The boy, who appeared a little unsure of the animals, was coaxed by his dad to pet them. Encouraged also by a volunteer in charge of the bunnies, the boy slowly entered the enclosure and sat down.
Then, one of the bunnies, Pippin — white, with long black eyelashes and matching black eyes — hopped toward the little boy. The volunteer scooped up the friendly creature and asked the boy if he wanted to pet Pippin's soft fur, telling him the bunny's name and age. The boy nodded.
The child's father smiled above the enclosure, watching his son forget, for a few precious moments, about his health struggles. Pippin stayed with the little boy for almost 30 minutes, just sitting in his lap, completely still, and letting the boy kiss and pet him. When the boy and his father eventually left, they wore ear-to-ear smiles.
Making moments like these possible is what the nonprofit Jasper Ridge Farm, located at Webb Ranch in Portola Valley, is all about.
Animals helping children
Wendy Mattes founded the nonprofit in July 2009 on a small piece of land in Woodside. She began adopting miniature horses, rabbits and other friendly creatures to help fulfill the nonprofit's simple mission: animals helping children.
The seed for Jasper Ridge Farm was planted in 2008, when Mattes' horseback riding student, a 13-year-old girl, was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor rendering her unable to attend riding practice. Mattes knew of the girl's fondness for horses and how she was struggling with not being able to see one.
So Mattes devised a way to help the girl and her family: She brought a miniature horse into their home.
The smile that engulfed the girl's face when she saw the horse enter her living room forever changed Mattes, she recalls, not only because of the comfort the animal provided, but also because her parents were happy to see their child smiling. For that hour, the family forgot about the girl's health problems, and just enjoyed the horse's affection.
A few months later, the little girl passed away, but Mattes was so struck by the impact the horse had on the child that she created her nonprofit to help other terminally ill children through animal therapy.
Soon enough Mattes, who still serves as founder and executive director, had adopted almost a dozen animals, the majority from the Peninsula Humane Society, for visits to local hospitals. The animals included three miniature horses, two bunnies, two guinea pigs, two goats, and a cat.
The nonprofit began bringing these animals to the Ronald McDonald House to provide comfort to the terminally ill children and their families, at no charge.
"Animals don't judge, they love people unconditionally and can sense when something is wrong or when someone needs a little extra love and attention," Mattes says.
A dream blossoms
In 2012, the organization started its HorseBuddies program, which uses animal therapy to help kids with mental or physical disabilities. It partnered with schools in the county for a three-week session. This was the first of many program expansions.
The nonprofit began growing beyond Mattes' wildest dreams. But with limited operating space and a small staff, the needs became difficult to accommodate.
"We had more requests for visits than we could imagine or handle," Mattes says.
After four years of operation, Mattes considered moving locations to accommodate more animals and a growing client list. Around the same time, the nonprofit's lease expired in the Woodside location.
The organization and Mattes had great relationships with Webb Ranch, she says. The nonprofit often used Webb Ranch horses for visits, and the Webb Ranch owners loved what the nonprofit was doing. The ranch offered Mattes a 3-acre, rent-free spot in its Portola Valley location. All the nonprofit had to do was raise the funds for a barn. So in 2013, Mattes and her nonprofit began the long process of moving and building.
There were complications in the moving process, but in 2016 the structure was completed and the animals moved into their new home. At that time, the nonprofit's mission also changed slightly from "animals helping children" to "animals helping people." Jasper Ridge Farm dedicated itself to helping adults and groups in addition to sick children.
It also adopted new animals, including a flock of chickens, two sheep and more bunnies.
"The Webb Ranch partnership has allowed Jasper Ridge Farm to grow," Mattes says. "It was a match made in heaven."
Now, Jasper Ridge Farm has the space to hold programs on the ranch, but still has the option of transporting the animals to the client's location, Mattes notes.
Those who benefit
Some of the groups the nonprofit provides animal therapy to now include: homeless shelters, domestic violence shelters, the Elmwood Correctional Facility, veterans through the HorseHeroes program, high schoolers through the "de-stress" programs at Menlo-Atherton, Menlo and Castilleja high schools, blind and deaf people, senior citizens, and physically and mentally disabled children through the HorseBuddies program, in addition to terminally ill children.
In 2017, Jasper Ridge Farm served 2,654 children and adults, and the number grows every year. There are five staff members and 116 volunteers.
The farm continues to offer all of its programs at no charge, which means it relies on donations and grants for transportation, vet bills, animal food and other necessities.
Alyssa Houk, Jasper Ridge's general manager, comes to the farm every day and oversees the day-to-day operations while working on the big-picture ideas with Mattes.
Houk cites an experience involving an 8-year-old special needs boy in the HorseBuddies program as one of her most memorable moments.
A typical HorseBuddies program includes having the kids groom, pet and eventually ride the horses at the farm. But the boy was not interested in any of the animals, Houk recalls. He couldn't sit still or listen, and was yelling. But at a certain point, there was no more screaming.
"It was silent, and I was confused because this little boy had been yelling the majority of the time," she says. "I walk around to see him holding onto the end of a horse's leash with a volunteer in front of him walking the horse."
He thought he was walking the horse alone; he and the volunteer did multiple laps around the barn, Houk says. "He was finally calm. His behavior completely changed, and he was excited to be here."
Rachel McGillis, a special education teacher and the farm's volunteer coordinator, had a similar experience when she took her students to a HorseBuddies program.
Her students had been looking forward to the visit all year, she says, and their behavior completely changed when they arrived at the farm.
"They were all listening and being quiet, which is very rare for them," McGillis says. "It brought them out of their comfort zone, and they couldn't stop talking about the visit for the rest of the year."
Another Jasper Ridge Farm program is called HorseHeroes. This program involves animals helping veterans in partnership with the Veterans Administration Health Care System in Palo Alto.
HorseHeroes uses horses from Webb Ranch to help veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and head injuries, according to the nonprofit's website. The program is near to Mattes' heart because her husband is a Vietnam veteran, and she has two sons in the Air Force.
Mattes remembers an incident where an Iraq War veteran named Steve, who had suffered a traumatic head injury while serving, came to the farm to ride a horse. He walked with a cane and a service dog, and was having trouble carrying his saddle.
"I offered to carry his saddle, but he said, 'If I can't carry my own saddle then I don't deserve to ride a horse,'" Mattes recalls. After some struggling, Steve made it onto the horse and rode for a while. He now comes to the farm regularly to ride, she says.
Jasper Ridge Farm volunteers and staff also visit the Elmwood Correctional Facility in Milpitas. The animals have a tremendous impact on the inmates, who are unable to show affection otherwise because of their lack of physical contact with other people, Mattes explains.
The animals also don't know the inmates' background or what they did; they are just there to love and respond to the need, she says. "The animals are funny and affectionate. This little goat or bunny is going to love you no matter what."
Whenever the animals come to the prison, Mattes hears the women weeping with excitement over the chance to hold the rabbits and pet the goats, she says. One woman held a bunny for the entire duration of a visit.
A warden told Mattes that the inmates' behavior improves before and after their visits, she says.
Mattes credits the farm's friendly animals for helping her with her own health challenges. She has multiple sclerosis (MS) and believes being around the animals has kept her symptoms in check.
"Sometimes I feel like our biggest client!" she says. "Coming to work at such a peaceful place with affectionate animals helps me."
For more information on Jasper Ridge Farm, including how to volunteer or donate to the nonprofit, visit jasperridgefarm.org. The farm is located on Webb Ranch at 2720 Alpine Road.
— Lauren Kelmar is a longtime volunteer at Jasper Ridge Farm.
This story contains 1620 words.
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