Ellie Laks is a lifelong lover of animals.
She founded the Gentle Barn Foundation a decade ago and has given a permanent home to over 14 species of animals that were rescued from abuse or neglect.
After rehabilitating the animals, the Gentle Barn brings them together with troubled teenagers and disabled adults for therapy.
"I've been here for a while," says Ana Gerbach, one of the disabled adults who comes to the Gentle Barn once a week as part of an informal 10-month therapeutic program. Grooming and caring for the animals is said to help people like her address their own challenges.
The animals often undergo months of special care before they can work with people.
"This place doesn't work by just hugging cute animals. It's the at-risk kids that have been through abuse and neglect and hardship and being misunderstood, when they come face-to-face with an animal that has the exact same story, that's the healing element," says Ellie Laks, Gentle Barn's founder.
"That's where a kid goes, 'Wow, I'm not alone. There's someone else that shares my story. And if this animal can overcome and be safe here, then I can overcome and be safe in the world.'"
Put to work
Laks says her volunteers help educate the public about abused animals, among other tasks.
"All the horses are groomed at 10 o'clock every day, so you've got volunteers that come in and groom the horses," she says.
"We have volunteers that come and take the animals for walks and eat grass. When we have a special rescue where the animal needs supervision and company, we have volunteers that come and supervise that animal, sometimes around-the-clock, all through the night."
Retiree Janet Becht began volunteering at the Gentle Barn last April and has been coming back ever since.
"And I didn't even know where it was, it was four miles (six kilometers) from my house," she says. "So it's very close and, I don't know, I just never saw anything like it. Just fell in love with the horses. They scare me. They did, they don't scare me so much any more."
Volunteers also help with the upkeep of the Gentle Barn, which is funded by donations.
Ellie Laks says she hopes to start Gentle Barns across the United States so everyone can interact with animals and experience their unique brand of healing.