Posted on Jan 15, 2016
By Ellie Laks, Founder of The Gentle Barn
We had three wonderful groups of foster children come to The Gentle Barn, Tennessee in January: toddlers, elementary school kids, and teenagers. Each group was so fun and unique. Surrounded by nature, the kids practiced motor skills, social skills, and confidence among the animals. Each group left the barn at the end of their visit a little bit lighter, stronger, brighter, and more hopeful.
The two and three-year-olds have all been expelled from daycares prior to enrolling in our program. They have had trouble following rules and getting along with other children. Every time they come to The Gentle Barn we give them freedom to explore, follow their own ideas, and to practice balance and coordination while only giving them a couple of boundaries or rules to follow. Since they have been coming to the Gentle Barn we have never had a problem with defiance and they have all gotten along with each other beautifully.
We took the tots to see Dudley and they held brushes in their tiny hands, practicing dexterity and gentleness while talking to Dudley. Then they laid their little heads against Dudley, closed their eyes and felt his nurturing, loving energy, something they got way too little of in their short little lives. As we left the cow area, the kids spotted the tractor, took turns climbing up the stairs of the tractor, and pretended to drive it. It was a fantastic way to work on sharing, patience, and coordination.
It was extremely cold outside and we didn’t want the kids to be outside too long, so when we were all filled up with Dudley’s affections, we took the kids into the kitchen to make vegan marshmallow treats. We all sat on the floor in a circle and took turns scooping out Rice Crispies from the box into a bowl. They took turns pouring marshmallows into the saucepan, watching it melt, and stirring the mixture with the cereal. Then they all patted it down into the pan. While we waited the 10 minutes for it to set, the kids took turns sweeping up the floor of any spilled cereal. The kids were polite, patient, kind, helpful, and cooperative with each other. They did such a fantastic job and we told them how proud of them we were as we munched happily on our rice crispy treats. After warm hugs and high fives they bundled up and loaded into their car seats. We waved goodbye, missing them already.
The next day we hosted the 6 – 10 year olds. Even though these kids have suffered the most unimaginable abuse and were so under nurtured, they were bright, full of life, interested in everything, and so much fun to be around. We started our session off by asking them what word described who they were and what was their dream. I was astounded that although they had so little and suffered so much, each child wanted to have careers to give back. They wanted to be nurses, teachers, caseworkers, and foster parents. They seemed to think positively about themselves. They used words like kind, gentle, smart, and outgoing to describe themselves.
Once we were done with our greetings, we went to see, Dudley. They brushed and hugged him and wished him happy birthday. Then, as Dudley and Destiny grazed we sat in a circle on the grass and had a discussion. I told the kids that Dudley was raised to be eaten. Dudley was always surrounded by people who only saw him as an unintelligent, unfeeling, uncaring, piece of meat. He never believed them, though. Dudley was always so joyful, happy, and hopeful. I asked the kids how they were treated when they were with their biological parents and if it affected how they felt about themselves. The kids came up with such insightful answers! One of them said that his parents didn’t feed him or keep him clean, so he often felt unimportant. Another shared that her parents beat her so she felt sad and lonely. Another one said that her parents never gave her attention and she felt unlovable. We sat together and watched Dudley and Destiny play and explore. I pointed out that Dudley was taken away from his mom when he was very young, and he was not fed or cared for properly. He lost his foot and was in terrible pain for a long time. Dudley was eventually able let his past experiences go, and has fully embraced his second chance. He now loves life and who he is. Dudley inspired the kids that day. They saw that they can also choose at some point to put their pasts down, embrace their second chances, and remember who they truly are.
It was amazing to see how their abuse and neglect had shaped their personalities. Two of the kids were fiercely independent, as they had always had to fend for themselves. They needed attention so badly that they were always disrupting and calling the attention to themselves. Two of the children had been terribly beaten and used a very tiny, high pitched, young, baby voice when they talked as a survival mechanism: maybe if they acted fragile their abusers would take pity on them. One of them was such a polite, friendly, healthy-seeming girl as she had to tell people what they wanted to hear and be who they wanted her to be so she could avoid being hurt. Now that they are safe in foster or adoptive homes, we can help them overcome these coping mechanisms in order to find their true selves, find their powerful real voices, and find peace. This is what we will be working on in the coming months as they become more open, more confident, and more vulnerable.
On our way out of the pasture one of the girls told me that she had to leave her fifth home in 2 years. I told her how sorry I was. She shrugged her shoulders and said, “That’s ok.” I looked into her eyes and told her that it was not ok. It was not ok that she was not taken care of or loved properly and that she had to move from place to place. I told her it was not ok for her to have to change schools over and over again. I told her that there was someone who wanted a beautiful little girl more than anything in the whole world and they were searching for her. I told her that someday they will meet and she will finally have the home, the family, the love, the nurturing, and the life that she had always deserved. We then went to the wishing well to make wishes. When we were done the girl ran up to me and asked what I had wished for. I said that I wished for Gentle Barns in every state. She said that she had wished for a family of her own and that they would find her quickly. Children like her never allow themselves to wish for anything because they have been disappointed and on their own for so long. The fact that she allowed herself to want it filled me with hope and happiness for her.
The next day was Dudley’s birthday and this same girl was able to come with her caseworker. As soon as the car parked she ran up to me and embraced me with a huge hug. She told me that her wish had come true and that her teacher had begun proceedings to adopt her! We laughed and cried and hugged each other for a long time. It seems that Dudley got his second chance and this 8-year-old angel got hers too.
Our group of teenagers was so much fun because we got to assemble our new wishing well with them. These kids are usually competing for airtime and attention, but the project helped them practice sharing and working together. They did an excellent job! They were thoughtful, polite, and generous with each other. At the start of the group, the kids used words like lonely and disappointed to describe who they were. Working together as a team and seeing their own accomplishments was an opportunity to see that they had value and worth. They had made their permanent mark at The Gentle Barn, Tennessee. When we were done building, they felt a tremendous sense of pride. They had not only built our beautiful well, but were the very first to put wishes in it!
It was wonderful to have all the kids visit The Gentle Barn, Tennessee. We cannot wait to see them again next month. Jay and I travel to Tennessee the first week of each month to host these groups and train our staff to be able to work with these kids. By next year we are hoping that our staff will be completely self-sufficient in running our Peace Enhancement Program. Then they can host many more groups and Jay and I can set our sights on opening the next Gentle Barn. In the meantime, we love going to Tennessee each month and we feel honored to know these brave, beautiful children.