PERU — Butternut Ridge Farm in Peru is home to many animals, but perhaps most notable are the Rev. Dr. Kenneth Parker's miniature donkeys.
Every Saturday, children with a variety of conditions, including autism, Down syndrome, spina bifida and hyperactivity, journey to the farm to take part in Parker's Thera-Pets Program.
They learn about the donkeys, groom them and frolic with them.
Parker said the small, furry donkeys seem to have a calming effect on the children — he encourages the kids to talk to the animals about anything on their minds.
"These kids, like all of us, need someone they can trust and open up to," he said. "We have found there is something about miniature donkeys that is so gentle and loving,"
'SLICE OF HEAVEN'
Shelley Provost brings her 5-year-old son, Devin, to the farm every other weekend. She said interacting with the donkeys — as well as with the other children — has been good for her son, who has sensory issues.
Devin, as have other youngsters, has chosen a donkey that he considers his own and grooms it each time he visits.
"He might not remember which feet his shoes go on, but he remembers his donkey's name," Provost said.
Parker and his wife, Helle, have about 30 miniature donkeys on the farm, as well as an abundance of other animals, including peacocks, geese, ducks, chickens and a baby pot-bellied pig.
While the children are always under adult supervision, they are encouraged to roam about the small farm's barn and fenced-in pasture, as well as to feed the fish and ducks in the Parkers' duck pond.
"It's like a little slice of heaven," Provost said.
TO GIVE BACK
To spread the word about the program, Dr. Parker recently held a Bring a Friend Day, encouraging his regular guests to invite others to share in the experience.
On that day, Juliet Sorrell and three of her grandchildren visited the farm for the first time.
Her 12-year-old grandson, Charlie Cook, was immediately drawn to the donkeys.
"It's good therapy. You can see it makes (Charlie) feel good," she said. "I can't believe how friendly (the donkeys) are."
Though Dr. Parker began inviting children to the farm only about a year and a half ago, he has been offering the therapeutic services of his donkeys for the past several years.
Upon his retirement in 2003 from his position as pastor of Peru Community Church, Dr. Parker, who has both master's and doctoral degrees in counseling, wanted to give back to the community.
He was inspired by literature documenting the benefits of animal-assisted therapy and began bringing his miniature donkeys to area nursing homes and Advocacy Resource Center homes to promote physical, emotional and psychological healing among residents.
Hoping to expand the reach of Thera-Pets even more, he is in the process of creating a program for grieving children who have lost a person of significance in their lives, as well as a program for at-risk teenage boys.
There is no charge to participate in the programs, as Dr. Parker said he does not want to exclude anyone who might not be able to afford a fee.
"If I have to start charging, I'm going to quit, because I don't want to get into that," he said.
To fund the program, which is run by volunteers, Dr. Parker breeds and sells some of his mini donkeys.
The program is also funded by donations and sponsorship from Morrisonville Methodist Church and Mount Moriah Presbyterian Church in Port Henry.
Dr. Parker's generosity is not lost on those he seeks to help, judging by the many hugs he gets from children as they arrive for their Saturday visit.
"Ken has been very welcoming, and he's a very caring, giving man," Provost said.