Posted on May 15, 2014
We had three teenage foster kids on probation come to the barn this week. They were all pretty shut down and closed off at first. I asked them what word best described who they were and what was their dream. They didn’t know initially, but, with a little encouragement, they finally said what they wanted to do when they grew up and who they were. One said he wanted to be a policeman, another an artist, another to have a home and a family. I told them that all the animals at The Gentle Barn are heroes because they have all gone through terrible circumstances and come out on the other side forgiving, trusting, and loving. I told them the story of our horse Princess who had different owners for over 20 years. Princess loved her last girl-owner and would have done anything for her. She carried her in the forests, the oceans, and the deserts, never complaining and always trying her hardest to be a good horse. When she got older, it seemed harder and harder for her to carry the girl and she developed painful arthritis. The young woman’s mother believed that horses should either be ridden or put down, but they don’t get to hang around useless. The girl begged us to take Princess to save her life. Princess was devastated to lose her girl and lifetime friend. However, instead of shutting down and losing hope, Princess kept her heart wide open to love and second chances. Princess is a hero and inspires us every day to keep our hearts open, vulnerable, and alive.
We then went into the cow barn and I encouraged them to hug the cows by putting their faces down on them and closing their eyes, taking in the love and nurturing energy of the cows. They all refused. So I got them, one by one, and took them over to Buttercup, our matriarch. They pet her quickly, but it took a lot of convincing to get them to actually hug her. Being open and vulnerable is very hard for these kids, especially in front of each other. One of the boys said, “By the time she is done with us, we will be soft,” and everyone laughed. The truth was, that was my plan!
I asked the guys if they knew what it was like to be invisible, unseen, unheard, misunderstood. They stood there awkwardly, not wanting to reveal too much. But, I continued to ask questions and pry and they started sharing that very few people understood them or knew them, only their closest friends. I shared with them that the animals at The Gentle Barn know all too well what that feels like. I told the story of Buttercup who was a mom in the dairy industry. All she wanted was to live peacefully and raise and love her babies. But in the dairy industry her babies were taken away each year as she cried, and, no one cared because she was just a “cow.” People looked at her as an object, or a slab of meat, but no one could see her heart, her kindness, her giving soul until she came to The Gentle Barn and we saw her completely. We saw her grief, her forgiveness, her vulnerability, and her ability to love no matter what. At The Gentle Barn, seen and respected, Buttercup started to heal and now she is the one we hug because she has so much love to give. Through her story the boys realized that they were not so different than Buttercup, they saw her, and they saw themselves in her.
By the time we made it over to the horses, the boys started opening up. They started participating, asking questions, and smiling, not so tough or defensive anymore. We picked carrots, washed them, and fed the horses and they giggled and ran from horse to horse, more like young kids than teens who had to grow up much too fast. In the upper barnyard they gave the pigs tummy rubs, gave out treats to the goats, held the chickens, and relaxed, forgetting their lives for the moment.
When it was time for the guys to go back to their residential program, they didn’t want to go. We wrapped up the session at the wishing well. Normally, I give the guys feedback at the wishing well about how they did, what I saw in them, and what they could do better. But I was worried that if I got too real and direct with them that they would shut down again and withdraw. They were doing so well I didn’t want to loose them after such a great afternoon. Awhile ago I had put posters up on the inside of the wishing well that had inspiring quotes on it. I asked the teens to pick their favorite one. They picked: “One day I woke up and trusted life,” “One day I decided to be happy,” and “One day I decided I was much more than a survivor.” I asked them to pick a flat rock from the ground near the well and write on it. The first wrote, “I trust life”, the next, “I am happy”, and for the last boy, “I am more than a survivor.” Then we went around in a circle and said our affirmations out loud and dropped the rock in our well. I told the teens that their rocks will be in our well until the end of time to remind them that no matter where they go or what they do, the truth of who they are remains. I told them that our lives could change the minute our thinking changes. If we think life is miserable, then, we will be miserable. But, if we truly change our beliefs that we can be happy, then we can create happiness. We can trust life and we can be open and vulnerable, no matter how many times we have been hurt, just like Princess. She was abandoned so many times and she had every right to slam the door to her heart. She chose to keep it open, open to love, and all the bursts of color and song that life has to offer. Life is waiting for us, but when our hearts are closed we miss it. The irony of life is that to survive horrible childhoods, we must be closed, shut down, and tough. It is the only way to survive our heartache and then when we grow up, the only way to be happy and find love is to learn to be vulnerable and open. If Princess can do it, so can we. If she can choose it, then so can we. When we keep our hearts open, like Princess, then when someone comes to really love us we will embrace it and catch the miracle.
When these young men first arrived they avoided eye contact and would not communicate. Now, just two hours later they were looking right at me and hanging on my every word. It was amazing to me that in only a couple of hours, minds can find peace, hearts can open and love can seep in, when we feel we are seen, heard, and respected. When they left, they hugged me goodbye and I whispered in each one’s ear, “you are a good boy!” Life had taken these kids and shown them the worst, most horrible hardships and it made them grow up and become adults way too fast. The Gentle Barn took these hard young men and showed them compassion and respect and it turned them into kids again with hope in their hearts, at long last.