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Dose of Nature Gives Severely Disabled Kids Joy, Self-Esteem

Usually unresponsive children come to life as they pet a miniature horse or hold a furry bunny at Ramirez Canyon Park, thanks to the Happy Trails group.


Jennie Marie Fockens usually spends her days in a motionless, catatonic haze, drifting in and out of slumber in her purple dragon-print stroller.

But when the 6-year-old's world expanded for a day to include 15 bunnies, a knee-high sheep and a brown miniature horse named Chocolate, Jennie emerged from her shell. She ran her fingers through the horse's dark mane, giggling and smiling.

The animals' playtime with Jennie was organized through Happy Trails, a nonprofit organization that matches fuzzy creatures with disabled children for three-hour sessions at Ramirez Canyon Park in Malibu, a 22 1/2-acre park that singer Barbra Streisand donated to the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy.

Happy Trails started partnering with the conservancy this year to provide a permanent home for the program, founded in 1993, to help disabled children feel accepted and successful.

About four groups from public and private schools around Los Angeles County visit the park each week, walking or rolling their wheelchairs down red brick paths built especially for the program.

"A lot of times these kids feel like they're the least important children at school because they're the last ones to be included in anything," said Happy Trails founder Pepper Edmiston of Pacific Palisades. "Here, kids with special needs can feel celebrated and included in their own little sanctuaries of happiness."

Pushing Jennie's stroller under the park's leafy canopy and stroking the girl's froth of blond curls, her mother said the girl's eagerness to pet Chocolate amazed her.

"She's usually so lethargic," said Connie Summerfield of Venice, who said her daughter has been severely brain-damaged since birth. "For her to reach out her hand and touch something, it's breaking a barrier."

The other five children from Jennie's school, the Bellagio Road Newcomer Center Elementary School in Bel-Air, smiled and laughed as they cuddled the bunnies, including Maple, a brown lop the size of a small dog, and Cocoa, a velvety white rabbit flecked with brown.

"Even though they couldn't speak, you could feel their pride and sense of achievement when they were playing with the animals," said volunteer Ben Chou of Westwood. "Everybody's always taking care of them, so it's really great for them to get a chance to take care of something else."

Program coordinators bring the animals in for each session from their homes in Malibu and Pacific Palisades. Before collaborating with the conservancy, the program moved among five ranches.

Edmiston created the organization to give children like her son, David, a place to shine in the outdoors. David, a 25-year-old who was left retarded and epileptic after a bout of cancer in childhood, plays with the animals alongside the children during Happy Trails sessions.

Parents and siblings of the disabled children are also invited to accompany the groups.

"Happy Trails brings some balance to the helplessness I feel being David's mom," Edmiston said. "It's very lonesome to be the parent of a child with a disability. With this program I can give people like me such a fun, low-key way to network."

As parents and teachers chatted quietly during lunch, some of the students continued their interaction with nature. One small boy in a baseball hat with Batman-like ears jumped around in a pile of oak leaves while a girl from the Village Glen School in Sherman Oaks, which sent eight autistic high school students, communed with a shiny black beetle crawling up her arm.

"Animals seem to have this magical effect," said Jan Wolterstorff, Ramirez Canyon Park's outreach coordinator. "All these unmeasured things--socialization, communication, feelings of self-worth--come out of this interaction."

Jason Devereaux, a 6-year-old from Brentwood with cerebral palsy, grinned happily as he stroked Maple, the furry ball of bunny sitting on his lap. Before meeting Maple, the boy had sat expressionless, his hands limp.

"It's great they had some smaller animals," said his father, Peter Devereaux, "since I think the horse is a little big for Jason."

Some of the older students preferred to take advantage of the sun-dappled meadow next to the garden to play games with foam equipment.

"The sheep was so cute, but ring toss and baseball were great," said Stepen Davoodian, 16, of Tujunga. "It's nice to be away from school for a while and be somewhere so beautiful."

The creamy-coated sheep, Chelsea, lost some of her appeal when she broke away from the fence where she was tied and jumped over a wall into a muddy stream. Volunteers and park officials lifted the baying creature from the muck as the teachers tried to herd the excited children back to the other activities.

Village Glen teacher Agasthi Ranasinghe smiled as he watched the students fuss over Chelsea, picking the leaves from her muddy coat. "City kids have no connection to these kinds of animals normally," Ranasinghe said.

Within the next few months, Edmiston hopes to introduce miniature donkeys, goats, cows and pot-bellied pigs.

"These animals can tell the kids need some love, and it's so reciprocal," Edmiston said.

"They need affection as much as the kids. But when the kids get a chance to hold and pet these little creatures and feel their hearts beating, they're transported to a different place."

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