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The BG News
BG24 Newscast
November 30, 2023

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Animals used by therapist to help heal disabled patients locally

Debra DeHoff is a therapist, but she has no doctor’s uniform and no stress management tools for her clients.

Instead, Dehoff dresses in casual clothes, works right out of her home, and uses animals, mainly horses, and several volunteers to help emotionally and physically challenged clients.

An Equine Sports Therapist, DeHoff is the director of Serenity Farm, located at 21870 Lemoyne Avenue in Luckey. It is a nationally recognized organization that gives disabled clients therapy through affection and respect from animals. DeHoff, a life-long animal lover and former counselor to at-risk-youths, went public with Serenity Farm in August of 2001 after friends and family prodded her to start such an organization for years.

“My husband said for many years this is what I should’ve been doing my whole life,” DeHoff said. “I was asked many years ago to start something in Pennsylvania, and I just didn’t think it was time. Then one gentleman who was cognitively and physically disabled came up to me and said, ‘I would love to ride one of your horses’.”

DeHoff decided at that point to go ahead with Serenity Farm.

Although she had done similar work before, Serenity Farm is the first experience she has had doing equine-assisted-therapy in one program.

EAT, as it is known, is the use of horses as a tool to help troubled individuals.

She now offers three different programs through the organization. Lucky Riders runs April-November by appointment only and assists individuals with mental or emotional disabilities. About 20 people currently volunteer with Lucky Riders.

Changing Directions runs year-round and provides counseling for at-risk youths and abuse victims. This is a counseling and team building program so there are no volunteers.

Pet Paws also runs year-round and allows people to spend time with small, trained animals. DeHoff says there are about six or seven Pet Paws volunteers, and probably 20 people volunteer for fundraising and administrative at Serenity Farm.

In order to successfully run these programs, DeHoff screens trained counselors and volunteers to help with clients. Susan Robinson is a retired teacher who works as the Pet Paws coordinator. She said the feeling of watching clients with the animals is indescribable.

“They ride these horses with these big smiles on their faces,” Robinson said. “The parents, and even the volunteers, they get very, very teary-eyed.”

This happiness showed at a recent Pet Paws visit to a classroom of eight students at Lemoyne Elementary School. The students got excited upon the arrival of two dogs and a cat. They brushed the animals’ fur and, among other things, gave them treats for about 30 minutes before saying good-bye.

Along with schools, Pet Paws also visits Christian ministries such as Luther Home of Mercy. According to Pet Paws volunteer Ann Heilman, visits there are special because the pets remind residents of their old pets.

“They remember their old pets, and they get these pets, and it’s almost like they want to take them,” Heilman said.

Robinson echoed this statement, and said she believe clients seem thankful for what the volunteers do.

“It’s like you’re giving someone this big present, and all you’re really giving them is a little bit of yourself and your animal,” she said.

Although the three programs benefit many people, not all clients find them useful. Robinson said they have discontinued clients because they felt they were not meeting the individual’s needs. She also mentioned that participants in Pet Paws are some times afraid of the animals.

Some times they will have autistic children who leave the room when the animals arrive.

“But then we find the following time, when we come back they feel more comfortable,” Heilman said.

Owners of each animal in Pet Paws goes through an appointment process first to verify the animal’s behavior is adequate for helping clients. Horses for all programs are screened ahead of time to make sure they will not step on people.

With all the different programs, none of DeHoff’s days are the same. The only constant routine for her every day is doing barn work with her volunteers before preparing the horses for clients, who range in age from 3 to 56.

The diverse clients have given Serenity Farm employees interesting experiences over the years. One client, a 4-year-old girl with Cerebral Palsy named Kamryn, was unable to walk before going to Serenity Farm. DeHoff has a scrapbook picture of Kamryn smiling while sitting atop a horse. “She couldn’t walk,” Robinson said smiling, “Now she can.”

Although some people may wonder how horses can counsel individuals, DeHoff believes they can do it just as well as humans. She explained that horses live for the present, and that some times people may be unwilling to trust humans.

“Horses don’t lie. Horses live in the now,” DeHoff said. “They don’t have to weed through like we do. Horses in this type of counseling have been able to unlock the emotions that have been locked up. It was people who hurt this client, and the client can’t trust people.”

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