Enjoying the rabbits kept by Stacey Puryear at Lewis House, a new Christian ministry in a West Toledo neighborhood, are, from left, Chieyenne Harris, 11, Melissa Cox, 10, and Kristin Swan, 7.
It all started with a rabbit.
Stacey Puryear, a onetime salesman-turned-missionary from northern Michigan, moved to Toledo last October to help two friends set up a Christian ministry called Lewis House.
She was there to help bring hope, resources, and a sense of community to people in a gang-infested West Toledo neighborhood.
But having grown up in the country and lived around animals all her life, Ms. Puryear missed having a pet.
So she bought a rabbit.
"I put it in a pen, in a space we have alongside of the house," Ms. Puryear recalled. "I didn't tell anybody about it."
Within a day, word had spread.
First, a 13-year-old boy came by and asked Ms. Puryear if he could see the rabbit. She let him hold it and watched as he hugged it, marveled at its softness, and promised to keep it safe.
Bethany Cox, 12, holds one of 38 rabbits, which have proven to be a draw for Lewis House.
Then, three girls stopped at the ministry and asked if they too could hold the rabbit.
"The next day I came home, and there was a whole line of people waiting outside," Ms. Puryear said. "I'm like, 'OK, I've gotta get more rabbits.' "
So she did.
Today, Ms. Puryear has 38 rabbits, 16 she purchased and the others a result of breeding.
She has enlisted 12 neighborhood children to help care for them and take them to rabbit shows.
And, this month, Ms. Puryear formally established the group as the only 4-H club in the city of Toledo.
Official meetings of the Holy Toledo Warriors 4-H Club will be once a month, but the children go to Lewis House most afternoons to feed, groom, and play with the rabbits and have learned many aspects of rabbit care, including trimming nails and cleaning cages.
On a recent afternoon, several of the children swarmed around the rabbits' makeshift wooden cages in a small, fenced-off yard beside the ministry on Lewis Avenue.
They scooped grain, petted the rabbits, and talked about each one's characteristics.
"They're really lovable and unique. And they kiss you," said 10-year-old Melissa Cox, as she cuddled a black and white Mini Rex breed. "And when you're sad, you can come and play with the bunnies, and it makes you feel better."
Melissa, who participates in the club with her 12-year-old sister, Bethany, said looking after rabbits has made her want to be a veterinarian. She now has her own rabbit at home.
"I never wanted to be a vet until I got a bunny," Melissa said. "The bunny changed my life."
Ms. Puryear said the project teaches the children empathy, responsibility, leadership, and teamwork. Those qualities and skills, she said, are particularly important in a neighborhood like hers, which she described as wracked by poverty, drugs, and violence.
"It's not about the rabbits. It's really about the kids," Ms. Puryear said. "I'm hoping they're learning how to love one another, how to work together as a team, how to be respectful, and how to take care of one another and be a community."
The children also have learned the meticulous art of presenting rabbits at fairs and breeder shows. Most recently, the children took some rabbits to the State Line Rabbit Breeders show at the Wood County Fairgrounds in Bowling Green.
Thirteen-year-old James Clark said the hardest skill for him was learning to hold rabbits correctly and present them before a judge at shows, a procedure he now deftly performs.
"It was hard the first time, but it's started getting easier with practice," he said.
Matthew Swan, 9, said he used to run after wild rabbits he saw in the neighborhood but had never held one until he met Ms. Puryear. The slight boy looked serene as he sat holding a gray and white rabbit that was nibbling on his shirt collar.
"I like that once you hold them, they don't get so fidgety," he said.
Some parents have become involved in the club, which Ms. Puryear said she hopes to expand to include other activities.
Cynthia Dixon was among several parents who recently helped put on a spaghetti dinner to raise money for the club.
Ms. Dixon said she was pleased with how much her 12-year-old daughter, Sarah, had learned from looking after the rabbits.
"She's learned not just how to take care of the rabbit, but that rabbits have personalities and how to calm them down," Ms. Dixon said. "She's even learned how to trim its toenails."
Ms. Puryear's next goal is to set up a vegetable garden for the children and eventually a produce stand. She also wants to help them develop interests such as writing and photography.
"I'm going with every interest they have to create life for them," Ms. Puryear said.
"I want to give them the opportunities their parents never had."
Contact Claudia Boyd-Barrett at: