pet parenting

Livestock & Dreams

High school students create program that spotlights special needs kids

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It may come as no surprise that animals have an increasing presence in therapeutic care for kids with special needs. After all, most humans have experienced some form of animal therapy: Cuddle a kitten and all seems right with the world. A few minutes playing on the floor with a dog can make the strain of daily life melt away.

For a child with special needs, spending time with an animal can help them cope with everyday life experiences. Animals have a natural ability to soothe and improve mood, and cause a rush of feel-good chemicals to the brain. Yet the benefits go far beyond the emotional lift they inspire. Working with animals teaches responsibility and sympathy and helps boost self-confidence.

Several months ago, members of the Middleburg High School chapter of the Future Farmers of America sat brainstorming, trying to create an event that would give students with special needs an opportunity to be around animals; many of those kids don't have day-to-day contact with animals.

With the guidance of special education teacher Hally Adams, they hit upon an idea that, whether by chance or choice, involved goats!

The plan, called Unlimited Opportunities, is designed to create great opportunities for special needs youth, and includes a livestock show in which they can experience being in the show ring, showing a goat.

In less than a month, the project has fostered new friendships, strengthened social skills and improved self-esteem.

The idea was for the participants to feel important, senior Kamryn Davis said. "We want to give them the moment to feel that they are the stars and all the attention is
on them."

FFA members worked closely with each student to make this a fun and rewarding experience. The youngsters learned to feed their goats, care for their goats, and walk their goats on a leash. Students accompanied their mentors a few afternoons a week to work with their kids (that's goat-ese for 'child') and sharpen their goat-handling skills.

The project has made an impact on the high school campus as well. "This program really helped me connect more with other students," freshman Reagan Jannotti said. "It makes the kids feel like they're just like one of us-and they are, they're amazing!"

Teaching someone to show an animal helps them learn important life skills such as kindness, patience and motivation, as well as having respect for animals and being able to work cooperatively.

Unlimited Opportunities got its first moment in the spotlight when students participated in Clay County Agricultural Fair's livestock exhibit. Each kid showed their goat, got a ribbon and made memories to last a lifetime.

Students hope this will become an annual attraction at the fair, and not only double in size, but spur educators to encourage more special needs students to get involved in activities that complement their special talents and interests.

Animals, like me, have a purpose in life: To make people feel special. It's an unconditional kind of love. Our nonjudgmental nature means you'll always feel accepted and have a dependable companion in your life.

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