Posted on Dec 25, 2015
By Ellie Laks, Founder of The Gentle Barn
We just came back from an amazing week in Tennessee. We hosted three groups of foster children: one for toddlers, one for 6-10 year olds, and, one for teens. Like our animals, they all have had the most horrendous, unimaginable abuse and are trying to get through life, feel confortable in their own skin, and find trust, forgiveness and joy again.
The first group to come visit was the toddlers, ages 18 months to 3 years old. They had been abused and neglected, over-controlled and under nurtured. Each of them had been kicked out of day care because of acting out on the other children and not following rules. Each time they come out to The Gentle Barn, we work on giving them the space and the freedom to explore their environment in their own way. By rolling down hills, running, climbing up and down stairs, holding brushes in their hands, and meeting large animals, they are practicing motor skills, vocal skills, social skills, coordination, and confidence. While they are here we give them two boundaries that they need to listen to, other than that they are completely free. This month we played in a huge leaf pile that they helped rake up. The only boundaries were they could not jump on their friends and could not throw leaves in each other’s faces. They complied with the boundaries beautifully and spent the entire time jumping and rolling in the leaves, collecting pine cones, burying each other in leaves, and playing “leaf monster”, where they would cover me up in leaves and I would pop out roaring and throwing leaves which made everyone laugh. We had such a great time! They left with smiles on their faces and their little hearts were a little lighter.
The second group was our 6-10 year olds. These children had to grow up so fast and have such sadness within them. Dudley’s prosthesis cracked that day and we repaired it and brought it home just before the group arrived. So the kids got to watch it be put back on and feed him treats and hugs afterwards. Then, when Dudley and Destiny were happily out in their pasture munching on grass and playing, each of the kids grabbed a rake and we went down to the leaf pile in the woods. I told them that we had to rake the pile but I was really hoping that it would lead to them jumping in the leaves like the toddlers. Sure enough after just a few minutes of raking and much praise for a job well done, we all jumped into the leaf pile. They climbed trees, covered each other up, and took turns jumping into the leaves. Once they were tired from jumping and running around we all sat down in a circle in the leaf pile. I asked them if they knew what resilience was. They all took turns guessing but didn’t quite know what it meant. So I gave them examples: when there is a concrete road and a plant grows up through a crack in the pavement, that’s resilience. When an animal comes in scared and abused and they find their way to happiness, that’s resilience. When Dudley lost his mom and his leg but found a way to stay strong and accept new love and new hope, that’s resilience. With these examples their eyes lit up and they understood what the word meant. Then I asked the kids for examples of resilience in their own lives. Their faces got very serious and one by one they each came up with deep answers that were so self aware and brave of them to share. They talked about being angry and learning coping mechanisms to not fight so much. They talked about keeping secrets for their parents and finally telling someone the truth. They talked about being betrayed by their parents and then learning to trust their foster parents. These kids blew me away with their honesty, insightfulness, and courage, and I made sure to let them know how well they had done.
The third group to come were the teens who when I first met them were angry and shut down. Each time they come out we chip away at them a little to find their true selves, their openness and vulnerability. They have been doing great so far and really responding to the animals! We started by hugging Dudley which always opens them up and makes them feel happy. Dudley was playing with Destiny when we came to see him and he was very distracted. I apologized to Dudley for interrupting him and asked him for just ten minutes of his time for hugs, saying that the kids really needed him. Dudley agreed and lay down, closed his eyes, and invited us to come sit with him. The kids gathered around and embraced Dudley giving him all their pain. Dudley leaned into them taking their fear, anger, and struggles and giving them all his love and healing energy. When we were done, we thanked Dudley and as soon as we left he was back up on his feet flirting and playing with Destiny. Feeling more grounded and happy after Dudley’s embrace we all headed for the woods. These teens were usually guarded, protecting their image, and reserved. Would they jump into the leaves or would they be too aloof? I had to find out! As we raked the leaves into a giant pile, the leaves and the fun called to all of us. I held my breath waiting for the kids to answer the call by jumping in. One of them jumped, and the next one, and the next one, and all at once the woods was alive with laughter and excitement. They were doing somersaults, backflips, front flips, burying each other, and having so much fun! All except one teenage girl who stood off to the side looking at her phone. I gave her a minute to see if she would follow the other kids but when I saw she wasn’t going to I went over to her. I asked her to run and jump with me. I asked her to pretend that we were both three-years-old, when life was simpler, and just run with me. I stood motionless waiting for her to decide, so afraid that she would say no, but much to my delight she said OK. We counted to three and then ran and jumped into the very middle of the pile of leaves, laughing all the way. Life is hard, challenging, painful sometimes, but the magic is found in those small moments when we throw caution to the wind and allow our true selves to emerge, if only for a moment, or a day at The Gentle Barn. After playing we brought the pile of leaves to the pigs, Horton and Henry, and watched them play with open abandonment, just as the teens had. That was a perfect example of resilience as the pigs had been so scared when we rescued them and now they play and chase us and love their lives. It was a wonderful example of resilience and second chances for the kids. We end each session at the wishing well where we mirror for the kids how they seemed while they were here. Their gazes were fixed on me, their faces soft and humble, and their hearts wide open while I told them that they were brave in telling their stories of resilience and pain. They were so lovely when they showed their true selves. Even though they had hard lives, even though they carried around scars and battle wounds, they were resilient when they chose to play and jump and laugh in the leaves. Just like trees who lay dormant in the winter and all of a sudden spring to life after the winter, their play and joy was resilient!
I look forward to seeing them again next month and until then carry them in my heart!
Written by Ellie Laks
Founder, The Gentle Barn