Posted on Dec 21, 2016
By Ellie Laks, Founder of The Gentle Barn
Several years ago, we started working with The Los Angeles Police Department and their PAL’s Program. Our role in the program was to bring children living in the projects in Watts to The Gentle Barn to practice kindness, compassion, and confidence, and reach for infinite possibilities. The Gentle Barn was my dream since I was seven-years-old, but I had no money, no land, didn’t grow up with farm animals, and everyone in my life thought I was crazy. I refused to give up and now I live my dream every day. Because my vision came true, I wanted to help kids cultivate hope for their futures, so we ended each visit at our magic wishing well where the kids get to make wishes.
On the kids’ initial visit to The Gentle Barn, they met animals of all different shapes, sizes, and colors for the very first time. They practiced confidence by feeding the horses carrots, practiced gentleness by holding the smallest animals, and practiced respect by walking away from animals who did not want to be held. Before they left, I took them to the wishing well to make wishes. They refused to participate, explaining that wishes never come true. I was shocked. I knew they didn’t have fancy clothes, I knew they came from broken homes, I knew they faced violence and drugs in their neighborhoods, I knew that some of their family members were in jail, I knew that some of them suffered from abuse, but I was surprised that at such a young age, they didn’t even have hope. That night I told my husband, Jay, about the group and how my heart was breaking for these kids. We both wondered if there was anything more we could do for them. I went to sleep that night, tossing and turning, thinking of their little faces and their bleak view of the world.
A few weeks later we got a call from an owner of a warehouse saying that he had 250 toys left there and knowing that we worked with kids, wondered if we wanted them. Jay and I looked at each other and with huge smiles we accepted the toys knowing exactly what we would do with them. A couple of days before Christmas we loaded all the toys in the back of our Gentle Barn pick-up truck and drove down to South Central Los Angeles. With a police escort, we drove door-to-door delivering gifts to kids who would otherwise have had no holidays at all. Their smiles lit up the whole neighborhood! Soon word spread that we were there and children of all ages came running from all directions. I knew that this small act of kindness would not change the totality of their horrific life circumstances, but if only for a day it lightened their load, and put happiness in their hearts, it was worth it.
The very last house we visited was a duplex with a very rickety wood staircase leading to the top floor. When they realized what we were doing, the young boys tumbled down the stairs with huge excitement on their faces, took their presents, and went bouncing upstairs again with laughter. Then, their mother came out. Her face was aged well beyond her years and she was missing a leg. A crude, home- made, wooden peg was in its place, barely holding her up. It was clear she wanted to thank us, so we tried to go up the stairs to meet her, but she very proudly held up her hands to stop us, insisting that she make the descent on her own. We held our breath praying that she would not fall and the staircase would not give way. When she reached the bottom, she embraced me and would not let go. In her hug, I felt her struggle as a single mother, her desperation to keep her boys protected, and her shame for not being able to provide for them the way she would like to. She held on to me for at least ten minutes, and I closed my eyes trying to give her all the compassion, love, strength, and positive energy I had in my heart. When she finally let go, we both had tears running down our faces. She gave me a piece of her that I will keep with me for all times. I think of her always and her memory fuels me to come up with ways to do more, give more, and care more. I gave her a piece of me to take with her that hopefully helps her be stronger and keep going, that reminds her that she is not alone, and that there are people out there that care about her. I’ll never forget her, or the pain that she carries, or her story that she told to me through that hug!
When Jay and I got back to the car, we were both crying and we vowed right then and there to bring holiday gifts to the projects every year. It wasn’t much, but it was something. Each year our goal was to provide for more and more children. What started out as 250 gifts quickly grew each time until last year we gave out toys, clothes, shoes, food, and school supplies to fifteen hundred kids. The parents are always so grateful and relieved that at least their children can have something good for the holidays, and that at least in this one area, their kids don’t have to go without.
There is one story that will always standout in my memory. A few years ago there was a girl about nine or ten in the shoe line. We asked her to take off her shoes and socks so we could fit her with new ones, but she refused, avoiding any eye contact. With gentle persistence, we finally got her to remove her shoes and were shocked to find out why she was so resistant. Her feet were covered in blisters from wearing shoes two sizes too small. We gently washed her feet and treated her wounds with antiseptic and Puremedy Salve. Then, we brought her new socks and shoes and she was so happy she cried as she smiled. Can you imagine being so happy over a simple pair of shoes?! We have so much we take for granted!
This week we held our 6th annual holiday party in South Central Los Angeles. We had a bouncy and face painting, and gave out FrankenStand veggie hot dogs, Hint Water, gifts, clothes, toys, books, and backpacks to two thousand children. The parents smiled, relaxed, and forgot about life for a while, while their children played, had fun, and remembered what it was like to be a kid again without worries, without fears, and without pain. The day encapsulated what the holidays are all about: giving, loving, healing, caring, and community.
We will keep growing this event each year so we can provide more gifts for more families. Our ultimate goal is to not only be able to give more to the children, but be able to give to the adults as well. Many of these parents do not have the simple things that we take for granted, like toasters, coffee makers, microwaves, or blenders. We believe that the grown ups deserve to feel special during the holidays as well. We are so very grateful to those of you who sent gifts for this event, and for your support of The Gentle Barn so we can continue to bring joy to more animals and more people. We hope you have a wonderful holiday, and thank you for being a part of our gentle family!
By Ellie Laks
Founder, The Gentle Barn
Author, My Gentle Barn