When Debra DeHoff was working with gang members in Philadelphia, she noticed that taking her clients to the rodeo was more effective than counseling.
"The animals have that unconditional love. They don't expect anything," she said.
Mrs. DeHoff worked for the Mentoring Through The Arts Program with the Police Athletic League in Philadelphia from 1996 to 1999 and had a background in social work.
Mrs. DeHoff brought her philosophy from Philadelphia to the Wood County village of Luckey, where in 2000 she founded Serenity Farm, a nonprofit organization that provides animal-assisted therapy.
"Exposing kids to horses and horse behavior made something click. What's out there now is not working with kids," said Kelly Garza, a licensed social worker and counselor for Serenity Farm.
Now, the message has been shared with the world.
Ms. Garza and Mrs. DeHoff have developed a manual for Equine Assisted Psychotherapy that combines the principles of that therapy with the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.
The manual has been sold in countries around the world, including Mexico, Canada, England, Scotland, South Africa, and Norway.
Last week, the farm hosted a group of counselors from South Africa, and Mrs. DeHoff said she plans to travel to that country to continue the mentorship program.
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The counselors learned about Serenity Farm online, read the manual, and wanted to know more.
Mrs. DeHoff said she and the visitors held a workshop on the 12-step method for two days, then had roundtable discussions to explain the exact methods used.
"It was such an enriching experience. I was impressed by the professionalism," she said. "They were just thirsty to learn."
The South African counselors are currently working in Cleveland, but will return to Luckey this week.
They will be joined by a group of counselors from Norway who will travel to Luckey to learn more about Equine Assisted Psychotherapy.
Serenity Farm offers animal-assisted therapies through three different programs.
The first, Lucky Riders, is a therapeutic horse riding program specializing in the treatment of cerebral palsy or autism.
The program, which runs from April through October, is designed to improve posture, self-esteem, balance, and socialization.
Some of the clients are in wheelchairs and participate in the program with a physician's release.
The second, Pet Paws, is a year-round small animal visitation program. Specially certified dogs and cats are brought to public and private special-needs classrooms and facilities. Children brush and pet the animals.
The program also has an educational component. The clients learn how to count in dog years and learn about the care and keeping of animals.
The third program, Changing Direction, offers year-round counseling that Ms. Garza describes as a "different form of counseling."
The practice of Equine Assisted Psychotherapy and Canine Assisted Psychotherapy involves clients working with horses or dogs, as well as with trained animal specialists and licensed therapists, to perform selected activities to find solutions to problems.
The programs are especially effective with abuse victims and clients with addictive behavior.
With the exception of the counseling program, all programs at Serenity Farm are led by trained volunteers. There are more than 50 volunteers, and many of them have backgrounds in social work, therapy, or special education.
Stephanie Page, a volunteer with Serenity Farm for two years, and her terrier mix puppy, Tank, visit classrooms with Pet Paws and work with the canine assisted learning program at the farm.
"When animals come [into] our lives, they have a different sort of energy than people. That energy can be really effective in breaking through the barriers we put up to protect ourselves," Ms. Page said.
She added: "It's amazing to watch the kids learn. They start being themselves with the animals. The kids learn about themselves through the dogs."
Laura Fausnaugh-Yeasting, a volunteer for one year, said the program "meets the needs in ways other types of therapy don't.
"Clients don't realize they're being treated - they're having fun," she said.
Barb Guinther, who taught special education in Oak Harbor for 30 years, said the program is remarkably effective.
"We're working with cognitive issues, following directions, hand coordination, and balance. So much is incorporated into each lesson," she said.
"It's so nice to see their faces light up when they walk into the barn."
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