The Power of Therapy Animals
We love the insidewink community because they really take “sharing the good” seriously. So, we always enjoy hearing from people and listening to their suggestions.
In one of our comment sections we received this note from a reader, Carolyn Osuyos:
Love your news and positive stories!!! Please check out SOUL Harbour Ranch in Barrington IL. I am a local fan. Jodie Diegel, owner, has therapy animals she shares with the area – Vets, senior citizens, shoppers and kids. SOUL stands for sharing our unconditional love. Everyone is happy when they see or touch her mini-horses (wearing sneakers) and friendly dogs. Jodie continues to take the train to Chicago and works a full-time nursing job. She relies upon about 60 volunteers to help-out with the animals. Very inspiring.
Carolyn’s enthusiasm moved us and we contacted both Carolyn and Jodie Diegel, the Founder and President of SOUL Harbour Ranch.
We learned that Carolyn was absolutely right! Jodie is truly superhuman, working as a nurse and running the SOUL Harbour Animal Therapy Program. We all know the unconditional love that an animal can give us and Jodie and her team of volunteers have made this love connection possible for many people in the Chicago area. Her interview is so passionate we can’t wait for you to read it.
“SOUL is all about Sharing of Unconditional Love and it’s what our animals do best! I’m a nurse, a dog and horse owner, AND a huge animal lover…what better way to combine career and passion into one!”
—Jodie Diegel, RN, MBA Founder/President SOUL Harbour Ranch Animal Therapy Program
Jodie, how did the wonderful SOUL Harbour Ranch Animal Therapy Program come about?
Thank you for sharing our story!
I started doing animal therapy work with my golden retriever Buffett, as a part of our local hospital’s AAT (Animal-Assisted Therapy) program in 2010. Our yellow lab rescue Dudley followed the next year. At the end of 2011, I saw an internet ad online about miniature therapy horses. An adorable mini therapy horse wearing sneakers was visiting a nursing home. I knew then that I wanted to create a nonprofit of miniature therapy horse teams that would visit those in need, just like I was doing with my dogs. On February 1, 2012, a trio of mini horses (Lunar, Turnabout and Mystery) arrived on a trailer at the barn where I boarded my big horses at, and wa-la, they were the start of my mini therapy horse dreams!
The main foundation of the nonprofit I founded was to ensure that our animals were more than cute little horse, but rather, that they would be “certified” or “registered.” In other words, the would pass national animal therapy standards of excellence.
After much research about “certified mini therapy horses,” I realized that just like my therapy dog, an animal by itself cannot be “certified” or “registered,” but rather, the owner AND the animal have to test to become a therapy team! I came across Pet Partners (www.petpartners.org), the national leader in demonstrating and promoting the health and wellness benefits of animal-assisted therapy, activities, and education. They register 9 breeds of animals, including miniature horses, and I knew that testing through Pet Partners would be a foundation principle of our program.
Photo of Jodie Diegel and 3 friends
Fast forward to 2017, when board members of that first nonprofit I founded decided not to register and test with Pet Partners, while also allowing volunteers to handle horses at visits that they had never tested with. Needless to say, to ensure competency, professionalism and safety, I was an advocate for my 7 miniature horses. Our wonderful animals AND the best volunteers who had been working with our horses came together and the SOUL Harbour Ranch Animal Therapy Program, the Chicagoland’s most experienced and comprehensive animal therapy program was incorporated as a nonprofit 501c3 on January 18, 2018.
We now had 9 miniature therapy horses (Lunar, Mystery, Turnabout, Charmer and CinderBella, Faith and Grace, Creampuff and Cupcake, and Unique). We added 4 miniature donkeys (Bugsy, Prancer, Princess and Carma), our 2 big horses (Garth and Stitch, who through their funny smile, bow and funny face tricks became an integral part of our program), and our 8 registered therapy dogs (Dudley, Marshall, Fern, Dakota, Baron, Obie, Taylor and Rosie). Another mini therapy horse (Unique, Faith’s mom) was added in 2019 and the coolest therapy cat (Touka) was added in 2020. We hope to have therapy pigs in our near future!
Why was the SOUL Harbour Ranch created?
After several years of “unstable stables,” my husband Jerry and I moved to a beautiful 5-acre property in Barrington IL in 2016. Our home and property, which included an old little 2 stall barn, offered stability for our program. The ability to have the best home and the opportunity to host on-site visits was a dream in the making.
Unfortunately, we had extensive rainy spring and fall seasons the first few years and the barn and paddock areas turned to MUD, MUD and MORE MUD! With the blessing of my husband, we had a 36 x 84 foot barn built on our property to become the new home of the SOUL Harbour Ranch Animal Therapy Program. Through the generosity of donations by wonderful friends, foundations, and grants, the barn was completed in November 2019.
The barn was the transformation of our program. We now had improved conditions for our animals and volunteers, plus we could host more people in need. SOUL Harbour Ranch, our home, our volunteer’s “happy place,” had even more SOUL: Sharing of Unconditional Love to offer! We are proud to be the premier and most experienced comprehensive animal therapy program in Barrington and the Chicagoland area.
You are a full time nurse, how do you have time to do this beautiful work?
When you are passionate about something, you make time.
As a nurse, I’m a giver, as are our awesome volunteers. While many of us work full-time, we MAKE the time to take care of and train our animals, as well as visit those in need. That might be long days and weekends, but I believe it is a win-win-win. It’s a win for the people we visit. It’s a win for the animals who love to be hugged, petted, loved. It’s also a huge win for us, to receive so much in giving.
I love the joy, awe and wonder of people when they visit…we often forget just how magical it is to see our amazing animals for the first time! There is also some very special about the “feeling” of being at SOUL Harbour Ranch. It’s hard to describe but it “feels” like a sacred place. We hope that with time, we will be able to invite more people to experience that “feeling,” the peace and serenity of SOUL Harbour Ranch.
What do you personally spend most of your time doing for the group?
As a former ER nurse, I’m like a jack of all trades at SOUL Harbour Ranch! I feed the herd, clean stalls, schedule visits, prep before visits, go out on visits to those in need, coordinate onsite visits, write grants, manage the website, and write media articles like this! I’m always thinking about how to have our animals reach more people. I absolutely love mentoring potential new therapy teams.
Our amazing volunteers also assist with training, mentoring, newsletters, metrics, grants, community outreach AND making sure we do things as friends outside of SOUL Harbour Ranch. I truly cannot say enough about how priceless ALL of our volunteers are.
Please tell us a litle about the organization and its programs.
Our animal therapy program is top-notch. We allow any of the 9 breeds of animals that Pet Partners allows. We currently have 8 registered therapy dogs, 10 mini therapy horses and 1 registered therapy cat. We have mini donkeys and several dogs that are still in training. While our big horses are not registered therapy animals, they share lots of SOUL through their smiles, kisses, and funny faces. And yes, I’m going to put my plea out to the Universe for therapy pigs to join us, since I’ve been told that the best therapist has a snout. Our other “therapists” will surely bark, meow, neigh and bray in agreement that the best therapist has fur and 4 legs but don’t agree about the snout part, LOL!
Despite the number of people and varied animal therapy teams, our organization is fun, drama-free, cohesive, dedicated and professional. Our animal therapy teams test every 2 years through Pet Partners which maintains competency and safety. Our handlers have to work with our animals for a minimum of 6 months before they test and handle at visits. We have 38 registered handlers with a total of 96 registered therapy teams! Of the almost 400 registered Pet Partners equine teams, our organization has close to 20% of the total equine teams. Pretty impressive! Each person has to be registered with each animal they want to handle. In other words, I am registered with 10 miniature therapy horses and 2 therapy dogs, for a total of 12.
We offer many different programs. Please check out our website to read about them! Our SOUL to SOUL program is our most popular, as we visit hospitals, nursing homes, the disabled, at-risk youth, schools, libraries, and more. We also host groups onsite, such as the SOUL Veterans program (hosting veterans and their families the last Sunday of every month) and SOUL Scouts (we help troops earn specific badges). We value our incredible volunteers, which total approximately 50 adults, as well as 20 students from Barrington High School where we mentor the SOUL Buddies Animal Therapy Club.
In 2021 we partnered with Sunlight Spirit Retreats and hosted meditation, yoga, singing bowls and of course, time connecting with our miniature therapy horses and donkeys. We also cleared out a SOUL Path around the perimeter of our beautiful property for mindful mini meditation walks. What is more amazing than “getting away from it all,” surrounded by nature, with beautiful equine frolicking in the pasture?! Our peaceful property allows us to connect with our inner SOUL and live in the present. Mindfulness abounds here at the Ranch.
What inspires you about SOUL Harbour Ranch, perhaps a specific program or a story?
Our special animals, our special volunteers, the special joy and unconditional love that we all share at visits…ALL of it inspires me each and every day. A kiss from our mini horses or donkeys, a snuggly hug with our dogs to make us feel better, a huge smile from our big horses while making a funny face for a peppermint…I know how happy I am, I know how happy our volunteers are, and this inspires and empowers me to lead our exemplary program to help more people! Now, more than ever, people need more SOUL: Sharing of Unconditional Love, in their lives. We are being contacted by more places that we can even visit. We are especially stretched juggling our “real jobs” and this wonderful volunteer work.
Special moments? There are SO many! An elderly lady in a memory care unit whose husband cried when he saw his wife smile at our therapy animals…he hadn’t seen a smile in a “long time.” A young girl in the hospital, who was undergoing chemo on her birthday…our animals walked in and gave her the “greatest present.” A 4 yr old hospice patient was nearing her time, yet our animals brought a sense of joy, love and laughter to the family. A police officer hugged one of our therapy dogs…we later found out he had just been to a very traumatic and fatal car accident where teengers had died. A teenager who had been at one of the hospitals we visit for over 6 months, waiting for a heart…a very special moment, forehead to forehead, a quiet SOULful connection with our therapy horse, just priceless.
A young boy on the spectrum, with headphones around his neck, terrified of dogs and unsure about a miniature horse…we watched him get close, pet and then hug Mystery. He told his mom that was the day he learned to be brave.
At-risk youth who showed love, compassion, teamwork, collaboration and connection with our animals…their teachers said our Ranch brought out the very best in each and every one of them. Animals have an innate way to communicate with humans in a way that we humans cannot always communicate with one another. Insecurities and vulnerabilities wash away in the presence of an animal, replaced by a confidence that is palpable! At each and every visit, we see moments of incredible SOUL to SOUL connection, as the hearts and SOULs of the humans and animals connect as one.
Can you give us an example of the way you’ve seen SOUL Harbour Ranch work make a difference?
There are SO many examples and benefits of animal-assisted therapy work that I can’t just name one!
Our greatest joy is sharing the love of our animals so that there are more smiles, joy, love, and laughter when we visit…that is the true healing. Research about how animals improve our physical and emotional well-being abounds, as evidenced by physiological decreases in blood pressure and pulse. As a nurse, I LOVE that!
Animals are nonjudgmental and have a way of accepting without qualification. There is greater rapport, communication between one another when our therapy animals are present…plus, how fun is it to see our amazing therapy dogs, our therapy cat in a stroller, or our miniature therapy horses in their sneakers?! We are all very honored to be on the other end of the rope.
What are the goals of the SOUL Harbour Ranch Animal Therapy Program for the next 5 years?
Our ongoing goal is ensuring the sustainability of our program through donations, grants and fundraisers. We just need to find those people who believe in our mission of enriching lives through our specially trained therapy animals, while ascribing to the highest standards of excellence by ensuring Pet Partners registered therapy animals.
Our 2022 Initiative is focused on finding and mentoring more therapy animal teams! We hope to find people who believe in our mission and will support us, so that we can continue to visit and connect with more people in need. In 2021 a 60 x 120 limestone foundation went in, preparing for our future dream of a 60 x 120 indoor SOUL Training Center! This will allow us to increase the number of indoor visit (no worries about inclement weather) as well as training sessions to we can help train and mentor new teams. We want to help as many teams as possible on their journey to becoming a registered Pet Partners animal therapy team with their wonderful pet, and then joining us as a SOUL team.
We have also talked about how much fun it would be to host weekly sessions with new people who would pay/donate to join in the SOUL Experience, and then tape that as a documentary, or even a reality segment! Possible therapy teams would stay at SOUL Harbour Ranch with their wonderful pet, and we would mentor training sessions. Reality TV with a purpose and SOUL! We have so much fun here at the Ranch and we would love to share that experience! We hope that one day this would be our SOUL focus to provide more opportunities for more people to experience the magic of animal-assisted therapy.
What are some areas of opportunity for your organizationand how can readers get involved? Is there anything that you wish more people knew about SOUL Harbour Ranch?
We continue to help recruit and mentor therapy animal teams, not only for us but around the country. We receive emails and private messages about training and becoming a registered therapy team. We are huge advocates of ensuring teams become registered through a national therapy animal organization like Pet Partners which also provides insurance for visiting teams. Readers around the country can feel free to call us and we can help give you direction on how to become a registered animal therapy team!
While all of our visits pre-Covid were in-person, post March 2020 we continued to virtually visit. We started Zooming with everyone that we previously visited! One of our most well-attended virtual visit was a series through AARP Illinois called “Healthy Minds, Healthy Lives.” We zoomed every Friday during October 2020, which is National Depression and Mental Health Screening Month. Over 50,000 people viewed those segments! We look forward to being included as a part of National AARP’s “Healthy Minds, Healthy Lives with Therapy Animals” virtual visit in March 2022!
We have been doing limited in-person visits due to the lingering effects of Covid but we are so proud of our ability to reach others virtually in such a big way.
Everyone can also “meet” us every Friday night as we started a weekly virtual visit on Facebook called “Friday Live at 5” at SOUL Harbour Ranch. Facebook friends can meet and visit our animals and volunteers, as we recap what has been happening around the Ranch and events, visits and fundraisers that will be happening soon. Friend us on Facebook to meet us!
The SOUL Harbour Ranch Animal Therapy Program is an all-volunteer 501c3 and we do not have any paid staff. It takes approximately 6000 hours of volunteer hours to make our program run! We love for people to know that 100% of their donations are directed to our animals and our programs. We welcome SOUL friends who believe in our mission and are willing to support us through grants, donations, and fundraisers, but also who see opportunities to help promote us. The more people our program can reach, the more SOUL and unconditional love we share!
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By JEAN TREBEK
Jean is a Professional Religious Science Practitioner, Reiki Master and Sound Healer. She grew up on Long Island, NY, and now lives in Los Angeles. She has two wonderful adult children, Matthew and Emily, with her beloved late husband, Alex. Jean enjoys taking long walks, watching movies, and traveling. She is very grateful for her family, friends, Luna (the dog) and good coffee.
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