Kids grooming horses, building with Legos, eating homemade muffins, playing UNO and sitting at a picnic table drawing pictures of their favorite horses. This is a group of happy campers. As they engage in their morning activities, the kids hear the occasional neigh of a horse and the clip clop of hooves as horses are led outside. Some look up and smile. Others continue building, eating, chatting and drawing.
This is Arrival Time at Birdsong Farm. Birdsong, which is situated in a barn that is surrounded by lush green pastures, offers a new approach to summer enrichment that is designed to support children who are experiencing foster care. Later in the day the kids will put on their new riding boots and helmets before they saddle up to ride horses with names like Dorie, PB and Blue. They are all eager and focused beginning riders. They sit up straight, put their heels down and steer their horses around the ring with big smiles on their faces. On hot afternoons the kids spend time giving the horses a bath. Their instructors are equestrians, teachers, foster/adoptive parents and volunteers, both human and animal.
Birdsong Farm started this summer. It’s the last of the three non-profit organizations I planned to establish in order to bring innovation and opportunity to children who experience foster care. The first two, the Treehouse Foundation and Sibling Connections, are focused on creating compelling new ways to increase family and community connections.
Birdsong Farm’s primary mission is to address some of the unique educational challenges children in foster care face. My goal: to collaborate with other out-of-the-box thinkers to inspire a re-envisioning of foster care. We are on our way in Massachusetts! Lots of folks are investing their time, dollars and expertise to create a vibrant new culture of possibility.
I chose to site Birdsong on a farm for a number of reasons. As a social entrepreneur, I am eager to create a year-round learning community that can be replicated across the country and benefit many students. As an educator, I want to address the dismal educational outcomes of our young people whose lives have been impacted by foster care. As a teacher, I value the farm as a classroom. As a foster/adoptive parent, I have come to respect animals as teachers. Specifically horses, dogs, pot bellied pigs, goats, and bunnies who inspire and motivate learning as well as help restore the health and well-being of children who have suffered challenging beginnings.
My maternal grandparents were farmers in northern California. Getting back to the land and having my own farm with a big red barn, an organic garden, and an ark full of animals has been a long time dream. The idea of creating a learning community with a cohort of visionaries, philanthropists, farmers, equestrians, teachers, therapists and students brings me great joy.
While I look for the right piece of land and scout around for the best folks to partner with to develop Birdsong Farm, I want to experiment a little. This summer I decided to launch Birdsong with a small summer program at a beautiful equestrian center. Before we started, kids and families visited to meet their teachers. Watching their faces light up as they strolled around the barn we’ve rented made my heart sing. This is my first barn classroom. Over the years, I’ve set up bulletin boards, learning centers and accessible storage areas in lots of settings, including camps, but not one where horses watched me as I lined up colorful buckets and hung name tags on hooks!
Yesterday after I finished my classroom chores, I sat outside at the picnic table. A wave of happiness washed over me. There were kids in the outdoor ring having a lesson, kids outside washing horses, and kids grooming their ponies. Everyone was connected and engaged in a positive setting. Everyone was safe. Lessons were being learned on many levels and peace filled the air.
Sometimes when I am at Treehouse or Camp To Belong MA and people are connecting in wonderful ways, a feeling of joy washes over me. I feel immense gratitude for all the people who have come together to invest in innovation: volunteering their time and expertise, donating fiscal resources, choosing to become engaged, and actively creating new possibilities.
Today at Birdsong Farm I feel deep appreciation as I watch a group of kids gently brushing the mane of one of their favorite horses. The teacher in me is happy. The visionary in me knows that Birdsong Farm offers a new idea that people can fully embrace. I give thanks for our great summer staff, the kids, their families and this beautiful place. I savor the moment. Now that’s something I look forward to doing more of as Birdsong Farm grows and flourishes!