Just a few short days ago, I was lucky enough to attend the 2013 Human-Animal Interaction Conference sponsored by the ASPCA and the University of Denver. The event was appropriately held at Green Chimneys in Brewster, New York. What is this strange place with the colorful chimneys, you ask? Green Chimneys operates a day school and residential treatment program for kids ranging from ages 5 to 21 years of age. About 100 kids with special needs live at Green Chimneys for an average of 2 to 2.5 years and another 80+ kids attend day school there. So what does a school have to do with animals, you ask? Well, in their words:
Green Chimneys is the nationally renowned, non-profit organization with a mission of restoring possibilities and creating futures for children with emotional, behavioral, social and learning challenges through educational, therapeutic and outreach services, while providing care for animals and nature, thereby promoting a philosophy of dignity and worth for all living things.
They also offer, among various other things, LGBQT training, internships in various disciplines, summer camp, nature-based career training, and boarding for runaway/homeless youth in NYC. Their Brewster location includes a swimming pool, a ropes course, a wildlife rehab facility, an organic garden, a country store, a bee colony, a farm, a playground, a wood shop, a dining hall and a fully staffed medical and dental facility. You name it, they probably have it for the kids. They do this all by holistically pairing nature, animals, and people. Honestly, part of this experience was bittersweet and left me deeply saddened. These services are open to the kids who need them the most but if we lived in a world that even remotely had its shit together (pardon the curse), this model would be the norm. This is what our public schools should look like. This should be the standard of care for every child. And we are nowhere even close, in fact, we get farther away each day.
Overall, the conference was an overwhelming and heartwarming experience for me. Without a doubt it reinvigorated my love for the field of animal-assisted interactions. First of all–hah!–the food was amazing (they have a professionally trained chef at Green Chimneys)! The workshops were extremely informative and practical. The speakers were inspiring–I must have cried a million times. And most importantly, I met a lot of wonderful people who were passionate about creating healing, mutually respectful relationships between animals and people. There were about 200 veterinarians, attorneys, mediators, clinical psychologists, social workers, animal advocacy workers, public educators, nurses, caregivers, teachers, students, researchers, and a wide variety of other disciplines in attendance. It was also nice to see a few familiar faces from the University of Denver. I can’t wait to sport my new t-shirt with pride! Such a wonderful group of people. See you all in 2015!
I would highly suggest if you’re interested in horticulture, art, music, and/or animal-assisted therapy to learn more about the valuable work they do at Green Chimneys. They offer internships, research opportunities and volunteer programming. The Farm & Wildlife Center is open to the public on weekends and they have their biggest public event, Birds of Prey Day, coming up June 2nd so get there if you can. If you visit, let me know what you think of the place.