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Ridgefield llamas offer comfort, free visits for those experiencing health issuesSubscriber ExclusiveUpdated now

Columbian - 8/10/2022

Aug. 10—RIDGEFIELD — Isaiah Rollins, 8, led Prince the llama around the farm Monday as his friends fed the camelids carrots. They were celebrating Isaiah's birthday at Mtn Peaks Therapy Llamas and Alpacas, where Isaiah visits weekly as part of his animal-assisted therapy for Down syndrome.

Starting next week, the farm is offering free therapy visits for those with mental health needs, chronic pain, undergoing cancer treatment and seniors. Each session will be accompanied by a volunteer with experience working with that specific need: Noémi Rebeli for cancer support, Toni Woodard for chronic pain, Kristi Vance for mental health and Mariah Okamura for seniors. The farm trains and certifies llamas and alpacas for use in animal-assisted therapy and education.

The first visit is a session with Vance on Aug. 17. The visit will focus on mental health — though Vance is not a licensed specialist, she has gone through intensive outpatient treatment and has experience dealing with depression, anxiety and PTSD.

"It's really great to give the opportunity to get that physical touch and affection and feel in the body versus getting out of what's going on in their mind," Vance said. "It's really important."

The farm has traditionally taken the llamas to senior homes, special-needs groups and schools for therapeutic and educational interactions. It also hosts private parties and groups at the farm, per request.

Volunteer and breast cancer survivor Rebeli spawned the idea for the new therapy visits. She sought out the farm last October after she was diagnosed, desiring to give back to the community and spend time with animals. When she found comfort through the animal-assisted therapy, she brought the owners of Mtn Peaks, Shannon Joy and her mom, Lori Gregory, the idea to open up that same experience to others going through treatment.

"I have the heart for a lot of people, but I'm not going to have the same amount of compassion for someone going through cancer as Noémi will because she's been through that," Joy said. "So it just sparked this whole idea. Kristi is really focused on mental health, Mariah we met through senior organizations, then Noémi with cancer and my friend Toni; she has had chronic pain since she was in her early 30s and has found a lot of healing with volunteering."

Each focus session will be one-on-one, allowing each visitor 30 minutes in the pasture to connect with animals accompanied by the needs-specific volunteer. The farm is testing the visits from August until October, with plans to continue them next year dependent upon community feedback.

"If you register then you get our address and expectations and then you just come in and enjoy some pasture time, very low commitment," Joy said.

The farm operates as a nonprofit and also a business. It primarily profits from selling family photos with the camelids around Christmas and Easter. Joy previously took and edited all the photos. She recently hired professional photographer Olivia Peabody, which increased the capacity. This gave the farm the financial freedom to host free therapy visits, Joy said.

"I think the biggest part of it is there's no expectations for you to share your story," Okamura said. "But if you need to talk about what's going on or you are just feeling overwhelmed, you can totally word-vomit onto all of us."

Those looking to attend the sessions or with questions can visit Mtn Peaks Therapy Llamas & Alpacas' website.


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