Posted on Apr 02, 2014
By Ellie Laks, Founder of The Gentle Barn
When I met her, she avoided my gaze and she had a cold, “stay out” expression on her face. She was showing me that she didn’t care about me, or my animals, or our place, or anything I had to say. “Duly noted,” I thought to myself.
When we all sat at the picnic tables and I asked the teens what word best described who they were and what their dreams were, she kept talking to the person sitting next to her as if I wasn’t even there. When it was her turn to speak she acted like she didn’t know what we were talking about. I explained it again, and she answered, “I don’t know who I am.”
Right then and there I made it my mission to get through to this girl—this girl named Vanessa.
As we went around to all the animals I was careful not to single Vanessa out in any way. I had to be gentle, but strong at the same time, show her that I cared about her, but could not be pushed around. One false move and I could lose a girl like this and never get her back. When we went to hug the cows I told the kids that the only rule at The Gentle Barn is that everyone must hug a cow. Some of these kids had never had a decent hug in their lives. Other kids were so defensive that a hug was a great way to get them to feel vulnerable. I held my breath, not sure if Vanessa would choose to defy me and refuse the cow embrace. Much to my delight she leaned in and put her face down on Buttercup, closing her eyes and breathing in Buttercup’s warmth. In that moment Vanessa’s face went from hard and grown-up beyond her years to soft, open, and loving.
Yes! I thought. There is hope! My heart went out to her and I wanted more than anything for her to let me in.
Later, when the kids were leaving I wanted to recognize her for the hug, for participating, for allowing herself to enjoy the barn, but I was afraid that if I called attention to her too early she might shut down for good, so I didn’t say anything. She did look at me though, as she was saying good-bye, and thanked me. That was victory enough for the first day.
The second time Vanessa came to visit she seemed quiet and reserved, but not as shut down as before. Although she avoided eye contact, she listened when I spoke and even answered back. Each of the teens was given a horse to groom, and Vanessa chose Rascalina. The first thing I told them was that every horse in our barnyard had been treated as an object before coming to The Gentle Barn. “So it’s really important that you talk to them. Let them know what you’re going to do before you do it.”
Vanessa watched me carefully as I talked, took it all in and paid close attention. As each child groomed and bonded with their horse, I went around and told the horse’s story to each groomer. When I told Rascalina’s story, Vanessa did not look at me, but she was listening. I told her how Rascalina had not been seen or understood where she came from, that no one had cared about her and she had lived alone with all her anxiety and pain stored inside her. As I said this Vanessa shot me a look that said, I know that story. I told her that Rascalina used to rock back and forth to self-soothe and the people were so blind to what she was telling them that they thought she was dancing. We knew Rascalina was not dancing, but instead begging someone to notice her, to understand her. With this, Vanessa looked up again and found my eyes. Gently I said, “Now that she’s here with us, her life is different. We see her, hear her, and respect her.” Rascalina had found friends and love and hope at The Gentle Barn and would never have to feel pain or loneliness again. As I spoke to Vanessa, I knew I was telling not only Rascalina’s story. It was Vanessa’s story too. And I hoped that she felt inspired by Rascalina and safe here with us.
On the third and last time Vanessa came to us with her foster agency, we hiked up the hill behind The Gentle Barn and sat on the highest spot overlooking the valleys below. I told the kids that five years prior there had been a big fire here and everything, as far as the eye could see, had been destroyed.
“But how is that possible?” asked one of the teens, gesturing at all the green bushes and trees.
“Because nature is resilient,” I answered. We talked about what being resilient means and I gave some examples of the animals and how they had survived horrible circumstances, yet got through it somehow. Then I asked the kids to give examples from their own lives of when they had been resilient. We went around in a circle, each one describing how they were resilient because they’d survived divorce or abandonment or being bullied at school.
When it was Vanessa’s turn I prayed that she would allow herself to be open enough to share. I watched her face as she looked around at the group, and then down. For a moment, my heart sank. But then, studying the grass in front of her, she began to speak. “I only met my grandfather three years ago,” she said. “But I felt special with him. He paid attention to me. Not like the rest of my family.” Her grandfather showered her with affection and praise. With him, finally, she mattered to someone. Vanessa took a breath, and said, “But he died.” She had felt her whole heart die with him. “I didn’t think I was going to get over that. It was the hardest thing I ever had to do.” All of us listened and validated her, nodding in sympathy and understanding.
When we were done in the circle we all stood up to walk down the mountain, back to The Gentle Barn. To my amazement Vanessa came over and walked beside me and did not stop talking the entire way back! She told me more about her grandfather and her brothers and how she had been coping. We talked all the way down the hill.
At the wishing well they each wrote the word Resilient on a rock and tossed the rocks into the well. “If grass can push through tiny cracks in the concrete, if nature can grow back after a fire, if animals can forgive and trust again after they’ve been abused,” I said looking around at the teens, “then we too can overcome anything. We are resilient!”
I knew the time was right to tell Vanessa how proud of her I was and how honored I was that she had let me in. I told her she was strong and brave and beautiful.
When it was time for Vanessa to leave, she didn’t want to go, and we hugged each other goodbye like good friends. We made a connection that day that would last a lifetime. It was a privilege to meet her and get to see the sticky, sweet, gooey center that was the real her. Vanessa will be back in July for our culmination bonfire, and I can’t wait to see her again!