Non-profit promotes mental wellness through animal interaction
North of downtown Bellingham, on a 130-year-old, dairy farm is a nonprofit working to provide mental health services through interactions with animals.
Sonja Wingard, founder and executive director of Animals as Natural Therapy, moved to the 5.5 acre farm 30 years ago and at the time the existing structures were falling apart. Over the years and through thousands of volunteer hours the farm has been refurbished to provide the services it does today.
“Our volunteers have been the key to this organization,” Wingard said. “Hardly anyone was paid for the first 10 years of operation.” The nonprofit now employs 12 staff, three full-time and nine part-time.
Wingard, Abby Soley, and Gwen Hunter founded Animals as Natural Therapy in 1999, with encouragement from Catholic Community Services. ANT offers mental wellness programs for at-risk youth, veterans and elders.
Wingard has created an environment where people from all walks of life can build personal development skills through animal-assisted education. A group of 10 horses lead most of the programs at ANT but are supported by an extended family of mini-horses, rabbits, goats, chickens and a lama.
“It is amazing to see the horses be so intuitive and provide exactly what each kid needs and what each veteran needs because it is always different,” Wingard said.
The social interaction between the humans and their horses allows for participants to unearth emotions that traditional counseling might not get to, assistant executive director and mobile ANT coordinator, Jessie Pemble said.
Pemble earned a bachelor’s degree in therapeutic recreation from Western Washington University and has been working with ANT for three years. Pemble participated in ANT’s counseling services as a kid and knows first hand how beneficial working with a horse can be.
“We are all here because we love to help other people and to make their lives better,” Pemble said. “To see youth put in the work to turn their lives around and change their trajectory is amazing.”
Some of the horses on the farm come from a background of abuse or neglect, enabling them to form unique relationships built on trust with those in the program who might share similar experiences, Pemble added.
The program and volunteer coordinator, Katie Rohwer, organizes the many different programs that ANT offers. Rohwer has a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Western Washington University and is certified as a therapeutic riding instructor.
A majority of the programing at ANT takes place after school during the academic year. Groups of four or five youth all partner with their own horse for nine weeks and work through individual and group activities.
“We don’t prescribe anything because we believe every person has the ability within themselves to heal themselves,” Rohwer said. “As they learn to work alongside a 1,000 lb. horse they develop leadership skills and learn to step into their power.”
A new leadership/bully awareness workshop has successfully partnered with the Bellingham School District to allow for horses to mediate between bullies and those being bullied. Middle school youth work with the horses individually and in groups to learn how to appropriately manage their emotions and learn to work as a team.
The dream is to provide this program to all middle school kids across the county, Wingard said.
The mobile extension of ANT is an intergenerational project that brings animals to the elderly in nursing homes. An experience that brightens the day for many and can have a profound positive effect on the lives of those living in senior homes.
Many of the participants that ANT serves are low income or come from unhealthy living situations. About 83 percent of ANT’s funding goes caring for the animals and to providing scholarships for families to access counseling sessions.
Like many non-profits, the organization manages the stress of ensuring a steady revenue flow to fund its programs.
“The challenge for me is knowing we can pay the bills in two months,” Wingard said. This year ANT gave a total of $24,000 in scholarship funds by the end of August and had $6,000 more requested – whereas in 2018 it distributed $24,000 all year.
ANT is primarily funded by individual donations and a handful of grants. There is always a need for fundraising and that is where we could use more help, Wingard said.
For example, only post 9/11 veterans have any funding through Wounded Warriors, so we are always fundraising for them, Wingard added.
Businesses in the community such as Keller Williams and Windemere have held all day work parties for their employees at the farm. Volunteers helped with grounds work, painting and repairs to ensure the space continues running smoothly.
Businesses looking to get involved can help sponsor a kid for one season. A donation of $675 sponsors a kid for nine weeks of programming. ANT also hosts corporate workshops for employers and employees to work on team building and leadership skills.
ANT works with about 300 kids every year and always seems to have a waiting list. Much of the ANT’s success is due to volunteers and a community grassroots effort.
“The demand keeps growing and anxiety has become an epidemic an epidemic among youth,” Wingard said. “So to know you have a solution for so many kids makes you want to keep growing.”