Sanctuary Animal Assisted Therapy held its final day of volunteer preparation work Sunday in anticipation of its official Wednesday opening.
Alona Yorkshire, Sanctuary’s founder, works as the clinical director at The Adult Skill Center (TASC), a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that provides education, job-training and independent living services to adults with developmental and learning disabilities. Yorkshire said many of her clients live in group homes and are not allowed to keep pets. After seeing how her rescued animals were able to comfort her foster son, who who undergoes an intensive treatment therapy, she decided to create a place where her clients could experience the same type of comfort.
Yorkshire said many of TASC’s clients live in Santa Clarita and had to travel into the city to access the services they needed.
“We kept getting inquiries about Santa Clarita because the area is super underserved when it comes to mental health services for disabled adults,” Yorkshire said. “That’s why we chose Santa Clarita for our location, and we took out a $100,000 loan to build everything to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. We tried taking some of our clients to some local therapy farms in the past, but none of them were wheelchair accessible so we couldn’t.”
In July, Yorkshire and some of her coworkers purchased land in Sand Canyon and worked for the next six months. In addition to licensed therapists, musical therapy and agricultural therapy, Sanctuary is home to 20 rescue animals including turkeys, pigs, a mini horse, a donkey and goats. Soon, the facility also will have an outdoor kitchen and some rescued sheep, and Yorkshire says she hope one day to have cows and full-sized horses.
She said aside from providing her clients with the unique opportunity to see and touch the animals, these interactions help her clients learn social skills in a way that is easier to understand through natural learning opportunities.
“These animals help us provide a very clear, therapeutic example of how to apply social interactions and boundaries to people in public,” Yorkshire explained. “The animals are very good at responding to people’s energy, body language and the interactions. If a client comes on too strong or aggressive to an animal, it will walk away, which provides immediate consequences to that behavior, and the client is less likely to be offended than if another person responded the same way.”
Both the Sanctuary’s clients and animals come from traumatic or abusive backgrounds, and Yorkshire said using the animals’ stories as metaphors can help otherwise reticent clients open up and share their stories.
Joseph Calderon, a TASC employee and Sanctuary volunteer, said it is unfortunate yet encouraging to see the effects of Sanctuary’s therapy because, of the few services available to disabled individuals, most are geared toward children.
“We hope that we can draw attention to the need for more services like this and that we’re offering a very effective, tactile approach that’s different from traditional therapy,” Calderon said. “We had staff rotations to try therapy during a training day, and it was amazing to see the healing potential it has. The main idea is for individuals that are more impacted to get a unique experience that doesn’t just meet the needs of a ‘typical’ person.”
Even though Sanctuary will not officially open until Wednesday, they have been in a soft-open state in order to provide services for those who need it.
Mackenzie Carroll, whose mother works with Yorkshire at TASC, has worked at each of Sanctuary’s volunteer days, which are typically held on the first Saturday of each month.
“It’s such an amazing experience getting to work here and see all the cute animals,” Carroll said. “My favorite is Dandy, the donkey. Being around animals is so soothing and relaxing, especially for the clients that this place is going to serve.”
Calderon said that, after working through the organization at different shelters and partnering with other groups, he is excited to help create one. Though he said transforming the property into an animal therapy center was a huge undertaking, Calderon said building the facilities was all worth it.
“It’s really nice for TASC to have a sanctuary of our own, and I’ve never been to another place where the animals come up to you rather than you having to go to the animals,” he said excitedly. “The animals here are all rescues, so when they all arrived here … very skittish. A couple of months later, they’re coming up to everyone and showing affection, so that transformation already speaks volumes.”
Christie Bacock, development and communications director at TASC, said Sunday marked her first time volunteering at Sanctuary and appreciated the warm reception she received.
“As soon as I got here, everyone greeted me and made me feel like I was part of a family,” Bacock said. “The community’s acceptance and willingness to help us out is so important because, as more and more adult therapy centers close, we really need to highlight those that still offer these important services.”
To learn more about Sanctuary Animal Assisted Therapy, sign up to volunteer or donate, visit their website at https://www.sanctuaryaat.org or the Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/SanctuaryAAT/.