Since 1992, Forget Me Not Farm has provided a unique set of animal-assisted and horticultural therapeutic experiences to children, teens, and families who are victims of domestic and community violence. Forget Me Not Farm teaches children how to value and care for living beings, develop respect for all life forms, and create a compassionate way of behaving and relating to others and to the earth – the antithesis of their violent experience.
Over 18 years, we have found that learning to care for animals and plants provides an emotionally healing experience through restorative touch, healthy attachment, and mutually nurturing relationships. Through nurturing animals and plants at the Farm, children learn to nurture themselves.
In a bucolic setting on the grounds of the Sonoma Humane Society, we provide our services to an increasing number of children who are dependents of the Court, having been removed from their families due to neglect or abuse. We served more than 400 children in both 2009 and 2010.
In the fall of 2004, the director of Forget Me Not Farm and the humane educator from Sonoma Humane Society combined resources and developed the Foster Youth Development Mentoring Program. Armed with years of successful stories from Forget Me Not Farm, and with dozens of foster youth who would soon be aging out of the system, , it seemed like a natural progression to expand our services to include a vocational training program.
In 2009, we received a three-year grant from the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency programs to expand our Foster Youth Mentoring Program. For transitional aged (16-18) foster youth, this vocational mentoring program offers connections with caring adults, as well as work experience that can lead to a stable adulthood. The most popular assignments in our mentoring program are those that provide hands-on experiences between the foster youth and the animals sheltered at the Sonoma Humane Society, and especially dog walking.
The goals of our mentor/mentee dog walker program as described by staff trainer Suzanne Kernek are not only to get the dogs out of their living quarters to smell some fresh air, but also to help them learn manners and relationships with humans that will ultimately make them more adoptable. In addition, we want to instill in the youth participants a sense of responsibility and compassion for dogs and an understanding of their needs. We only practice Positive Reinforcement Training at the Sonoma Humane Society.
Dogs selected for the program are professionally evaluated for various behaviors and ease of handling. All dogs are given color codes that indicate the degree of expertise needed to visit them and/or safely remove them from their habitat. Every dog’s name and color code are posted on a white board that is accessible to all of the mentor/mentee teams.
Before participating in the dog walking/training program, all mentee/mentor teams attend a series of comprehensive workshops with our animal training and behavior staff. Each student must successfully complete a questionnaire indicating a basic understanding of the skills they were taught in the workshops. Following several weeks of training, the M/M pair is assigned to one of our specially trained behavior and training volunteers, who will continue to provide ongoing guidance for the team.
Each year, more than 4,000 cases of child abuse are reported in Sonoma County. Of the children involved, one in eight are removed from their homes and placed in foster care or residential treatment facilities. These are the most severe cases of child abuse and neglect that render children at great risk of emotional and other health problems.
For youth who have grown up in violent and chaotic homes, learning and practicing Positive Reinforcement Training can be life changing. They learn that yelling, hitting, and other physical forms of punishment are not acceptable, despite what they may have learned in their family homes..
The teen mentees and their mentors are an integral part of the rehabilitation of the dogs at Sonoma Humane, which leads directly to quicker adoptions. The benefits for the teens are both immediate and long term. They receive immediate feedback from the dogs concerning their handling skills and training techniques and see their efforts rewarded through well mannered and affectionate dogs. In the long term, the teens get the satisfaction of having made a significant contribution to the dog’s successful adoption.When a child who has been betrayed by his or her family has the opportunity to assist an animal who has been abandoned, there is often an immediate connection, and many youth in the program have greater hope for their own futures when they see their dogs get adopted.
Participating in the Forget Me Not Farm program provides very significant benefits for the dogs and the kids – benefits that can literally save lives.