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Animals at center of new program at Infinity Acres
During a recent visit to Infinity Acres Ranch in Ridgeway, Woodlyn Barker (left) and Michael Steere hold a llama named Swingtime. The ranch will hold an open house Saturday to launch its new ENABLE (Enriching Nurturing Animal-Based Learning Experiences) program. (Bulletin photos by Mike Wray)
Children and adults with special needs soon will have an opportunity to make some new furry friends.
On Saturday, Infinity Acres Ranch in Ridgeway will host an open house to launch its new ENABLE program: Enriching Nurturing Animal-Based Learning Experiences.
The open house will be held from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and is targeted toward people of all ages with special needs, their family members, medical professionals, educators, potential volunteers, potential sponsors and local businesses.
According to Laura Steere, who co-owns Infinity Acres with her husband, Rick Steere, the open house will feature not only information on the program and a chance for interested participants to sign up, but also music, snacks, face painters, pony cart rides, craft demonstrations and other attractions.
Infinity Acres’ menagerie will be on hand as well. Although the ranch is known for its llamas and alpacas, the Steeres also have horses, donkeys, goats, red and arctic foxes, giant Flemish rabbits, peacocks, chinchillas, sugar gliders, an owl and many other critters.
The animals, the Steeres said, are an integral part of ENABLE.
The program, which will begin May 27, will feature animal-based activities designed to help children and adults with intellectual and physical disabilities.
For example, Laura Steere said, participants might learn how to properly walk a llama through an obstacle course or groom a horse, activities that help develop motor skills, balance and coordination.
Other activities promote teamwork and cooperation, she said, while some people might benefit from exercises that help improve eye contact.
The activities, Rick Steere said, are flexible depending on the needs of the participants.
Laura Steere is a registered nurse with Martinsville City Schools, while Rick Steere has worked in high school programs for youth with challenges. While living in New York 12 years ago, the two created a Special Olympics team that still is going strong today.
For the Steeres, people with special needs are close to their hearts. Rick Steere’s adult son, Michael Steere, is autistic.
Previously, Rick Steere said, Michael lived in New York in a less-than-ideal environment. The Steeres were able to get Michael moved to their home at Infinity Acres, and “we feel blessed with him,” Rick Steere said.
When Michael first arrived on the ranch, Rick Steere said, he had high blood pressure. Over the last year, Michael has lost about 20 pounds and his blood pressure has gone down to normal levels.
“In the year that he’s been here, he’s transformed,” Rick Steere said.
Added Laura Steere, “He’s living, walking proof of the therapeutic advantages to the animals. Lower blood pressure, better weight, improved attitude and more emotional stability. ... He’s improved his eye contact. He’s got pride.”
Michael helps out around the ranch, the Steeres said, watering and feeding the animals and walking the llamas. Laura Steere came up with a rhyme to help him remember to hold the llama’s halter tightly: “Two hands to hold the llama, mama.”
When Michael first arrived at the ranch, Rick Steere said, he used his dominant left hand almost exclusively, as though his right hand were paralyzed. Just more than a year later, he has begun regularly using both hands to pick up objects.
“We’re training him now to use both his left and right hand,” Rick Steere said. “A lot of times when he picks something up, he’ll say, ‘Both hands, Mike.’ He’s learning, by that repetition, that he’s got both hands he can work with. These are the improvements that we want (ENABLE participants) to develop.”
The Steeres regularly conduct tours of the ranch by appointment, and also offer an Animal Adventure Summer Camp for youth, along with a year-round 4-H program.
Through these programs, the Steeres said, they’re able to see how working with animals can improve a child’s confidence and maturity in a short period of time. The children’s parents notice, too, Rick Steere said.
Handling and training animals helps young people develop confidence, Rick Steere said, because it offers them the ability to control something. They may feel they lack that control in other aspects of their lives.
“What makes the change is they get confident in handling the animal,” he said, “the control of the animal that they couldn’t see when they first started. So they may not have very much control of anything else, but when they learn how to successfully control the animals and run them through these obstacles, then that gives them a lot of confidence.”
Laura Steere said that when children or adults with special needs have come to tour the ranch, the reaction from the animals can be surprising in the best way.
“It’s amazing how sometimes stand-offish animals will lean forward and let them touch them,” she said. “There’s a sense of compassion and understanding.”
Those sorts of break-through moments, Rick Steere said, are significant for families who have loved ones with special needs.
“The rewards are just amazing,” he said. “It might be something simple to someone else, but to us, or to the families of these people, it’s a huge accomplishment.”
The ENABLE adult program, which is year-round, will be from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays. The summer-long youth program will be from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesdays. If the youth program is well-received, Laura Steere said, it might be expanded into the school year as an after-school or weekend program.
In order for the program to be sustainable, Laura Steere said, it will cost participants $25 per day. However, she said, Infinity Acres currently is working with Piedmont Community Services to obtain Medicaid certification, which would allow the Steeres to expand the program and make it free to participants.
Attendees at the ENABLE open house event may see Michael Steere, most likely with two hands on the llama.
“We see Michael, his pride and excitement,” Laura Steere said. “You see him just sort of coming out of his own world and shining. It’s so exciting to see that.”
Infinity Acres Ranch is at 136 Joppa Road, Ridgeway.
For more information on ENABLE and other programs offered by Infinity Acres, visit www.InfinityAcres.org or call 358-2378.