JoAnn Barlog and her daughter, Jenny, have driven up Sierra Highway to Mint Canyon and onto the familiar dirt path of Rocking Horse Road for almost 15 years.
Awaiting them at the end of that path is the Carousel Ranch, a place dedicated to the lives of children and young adults with special needs, like Barlog’s daughter, who was diagnosed with Down’s Syndrome.
“When we drive up that dirt path it feels like we’re coming home,” Barlog said.
Barlog first brought her daughter, 16, to Carousel Ranch when she was a few months old. Barlog and her daughter drove to Carousel Ranch on Saturday, not for therapy, but for a day of holiday celebration and community.
Carousel Ranch invited its kids, young adults and families for its annual Santa Day — an annual event to celebrate the holiday season. The party is specifically designed for children with special needs and offers an opportunity for families to socialize with each other.
“Santa Day was created because back in the early years, a lot of parents were coming to us saying, ‘You know, we can’t go to the mall and see Santa because my kid can’t wait in line,’” said Denise Redmond, co-founder of Carousel Ranch. “Santa at the mall may not understand the behaviors of some of our students or our students may not feel comfortable.”
“But here, Santa loves our population and it’s a safe space where every kid gets to see Santa,” Redmond added.
The day is “action-packed” with Santa giving presents donated by the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Station, s’mores by the campfire, performances from Old Town Carolers, and refreshments from the Sweet Shop, according to co-founders Redmond and Becky Graham.
Shawna Del Real, a makeup artist with The Rockstar Co., was face painting children.
“(Face painting) for children means everything to us,” Del Real said. “We do this all year long. We bring smiles to all children.”
Children with special needs often hyper focus on the face painting and get excited to see the final result, Del Real added.
“When children see their faces all bright, colorful and like (what they wanted) it’s the best,” Del Real said.
Redmond said they founded Carousel Ranch 25 years ago in 1997 with one child, one horse and Graham’s backyard. The ranch provides equestrian therapy for children with special needs.
“When you have a diagnosis of cerebral palsy, or autism or muscular dystrophy, you spend all of your time, so much of your time, at doctors and physical therapy,” Redmond said. “When children come here, we work on those exact same things (just on a horse).”
Students work on coordination, building muscle, and more, but when it’s disguised as fun, often children make incredible gains, Redmond added.
Redmond and Graham worked for a different program and fell in love with the work helping children with special needs. Eventually, they left their respective jobs, and years later came back to continue their work.
“One kid turned into four then and it just kept growing,” Redmond said. “We filed for nonprofit status and started making it an organization but back then we never would have ever dreamed of it being what it is today.”
According to Redmond, COVID-19 affected the number of children coming in, but it’s slowly ramping up. They were seeing close to 80 children a week in the equestrian program.
They also have a second program, Ready to Work, which prepares young adults with special needs for life after high school. The program combines a classroom curriculum with real work experiences.
Redmond said they made the vocational training program as an extension of the services they provide at Carousel Ranch because many of their young students stay with them for so long.
“So today, (Santa Day) you can see the Ready to Work students are running the coffee and the hot chocolate, and they have a retail store on site where they sell merchandise,” Redmond said. “This party is integrated between the Ready to Work students and younger equestrian students.”
It’s just a great day to share with families, Redmond added.