Caring for the miniature horses, dogs and other animals of SOUL Harbor Ranch is an act of love for this Barrington nonprofit’s volunteers. But what they really enjoy is the win-win-win for the people who find healing, the animals that receive love and the people who love to share generously with hospital patients, veterans and many others.
Every Tuesday evening, Anne Arroyo heads out to a small ranch in Barrington to feed 10 miniature horses, four miniature donkeys and two full-size horses, plus cover them with blankets, clean their stalls and take care of any other odd jobs around the barnyard.
The animals aren’t hers. She doesn’t get paid. And in the winter, it’s very cold work.
But it’s a job she – and countless others – love to do.
Arroyo, of Hoffman Estates, is a volunteer for SOUL Harbour Ranch Animal Therapy Program, a nonprofit that offers free animal-assisted therapy sessions to people who need the extra care and love that only animals seem able to provide.
Sometimes volunteering means mucking out stalls. Other times, it means taking a miniature horse up to the fifth floor of a hospital’s pediatric unit, “just to give the kids something else to think about other than their treatment,” says Claire Johnson of Cary, another SOUL Harbour volunteer.
Or it’s letting veterans come to the farm and visit the animals in a safe, non-threatening environment.
“We know that animals are good for our soul,” says Jodie Diegel, founder and president of SOUL Harbour. “This is meant to be a safe, welcoming place – a harbor. Our ranch is that place: a nonjudgmental, beautiful, harmonious, peaceful place.”
Diegel opened SOUL Harbour in 2018, and since then, she has been joined by dozens of volunteers in her mission: the Sharing of Unconditional Love (SOUL) through the power of the human-animal bond.
“There’s this connection that you sometimes can’t even communicate in words,” Diegel says. “Animals are able to help people in ways that others are not: kids with autism, adults with memory loss and more.”
When Arroyo isn’t mucking stalls, she’s a registered handler who takes SOUL Harbour’s registered animals for visits at a hospital or other location.
One of her most memorable experiences was during a visit to Loyola Hospital with Turnabout, a now 10-year-old miniature horse who wears a red harness.
“There was a boy there who had been in the hospital for more than 100 days – he was hooked up to a machine and was waiting for a heart,” Arroyo recalls. She still remembers how the teenager’s red shirt matched Turnabout’s harness. “When he saw Turnabout, his smile lit up the room – it was incredible. It was contagious; you just wanted to smile, too. There wasn’t a lot of talking. We had Turnabout go up to Christopher, and Turnabout just stood there for the longest time with Chris just petting him and rubbing his ears. There weren’t words that needed to be said. It was just such a connection between the two of them.”
Diegel describes these visits as a win-win-win situation.
“It’s a win for the people we visit – they love to pet and hug and take pictures and basically just be with our animals,” she says. “But then it’s a win for our animals, too, because they’re getting loved – they’re getting brushed and cared for and loved. And then it’s a win for us. It just gives us such great joy to provide that love and laughter with those people.”
What it Takes
Diegel is no stranger to animal-assisted therapy. The 58-year-old legal nurse consultant began her journey in 2010 by training with her own English Cream golden retriever, Buffett, and working with the Animal Assisted Therapy program at Northwest Community Hospital in Arlington Heights.
Soon, she added her yellow lab, Dudley, into the mix, and between the three of them, they visited more than 7,000 patients between 2010 and 2018.
“It’s very well known that animal-assisted therapy provides decreased levels of stress; they’re able to decrease blood pressure; there’s improved communication, improved well-being,” Diegel says. “Whenever we go on visits, there are smiles and laughter and usually just great joy. And that, in itself, is true healing.”
Diegel quickly realized she wanted to impact more people, but she also worked full-time. So, in 2012, she founded Mane in Heaven – an organization similar to SOUL Harbour – and expanded her program to include three miniature horses: Mystery, Lunar and Turnabout.
“I didn’t know anything about miniature horses, but I had two big horses, so I knew horse behavior,” Diegel says. “I had trained and trained with dogs, so basically I applied my dog training to my horse training.”
Then, she looked for volunteers. Johnson answered the call.
“I was so excited because she wasn’t looking for a specific degree in anything, and you didn’t need to own a horse,” she says. “I love animals, I love people and I really just wanted to learn how to do this and help.”
Diegel, Johnson and others continued to visit nursing homes, hospitals, at-risk youth centers and other groups in need of love and comfort.
Then, Diegel decided to open SOUL Harbour in 2018 because she wanted to ensure each and every animal in the program was registered through Pet Partners, a nationally recognized nonprofit known as the gold standard in training and registering animal-assisted therapy handlers.
“As a nurse, I’ve always valued certifications and ways to demonstrate your competency in whatever area it may be – your work life, your nonprofit life – and I wanted more than just cute little therapy animals in a program,” she says. “The great thing about Pet Partners is you have to work with your animals a minimum of six months before you even test. It’s so much more than handing someone a leash or lead rope. Your animal is your teammate. We always like to say they’re our soulmates.”
Registered animals learn standardized commands that all handlers utilize, Diegel says. Horses, for instance, learn “stay,” “walk,” “whoa” and other commands, as well as learning to back up in a small space. “Visit” also is a command: it gives the horses the idea that they’re going into a visit and they’re going to receive lots of hands-on attention and love.
Even registered cats – and SOUL Harbour does have one registered cat on its roster – have to learn to do a 30-second stay.
“There’s a different level of professionalism I believe our program demonstrates,” Diegel says. “And it’s the professionalism and the competency of our volunteers that also ensures the highest level of safety for everybody.”
Still, SOUL Harbour is open to anyone looking to share the love.
“People who have well-mannered dogs can be part of our program,” Diegel says. “We’re always looking for new partners.”
In fact, Pet Partners allows nine breeds of animals: dogs, horses and donkeys, cats, rats, rabbits, guinea pigs, miniature pigs, birds, and llamas and alpacas. “If anybody has one of those animals, I really want a therapy pig,” Diegel laughs.
How it Works
Today, SOUL Harbour is the largest and most experienced animal therapy program in the northwest suburbs, Diegel says.
To put it in perspective, Pet Partners has about 400 horse teams, Diegel says, and SOUL Harbour makes up about 20 percent of those teams.
In all, SOUL Harbour has 40 registered handlers and 96 registered therapy teams. Diegel personally is registered with her two dogs and all 10 miniature horses at the ranch; Arroyo also is registered with all 10 miniature horses.
As you can imagine, SOUL Harbour is busy. In 2020 alone, the organization was involved in 250 activities, including 178 visits, which impacted an estimated 108,000 people, Diegel says.
That doesn’t count the “Friday Live at 5” livestreams SOUL Harbour started during the pandemic.
While the majority of SOUL Harbour’s work involves therapy visits – either on-site or off-site – the nonprofit has several additional programs it works with.
The Walk With Me program is an exercise initiative that takes place at outdoor locations. SOUL Buddies at Barrington High School teaches students to be handlers so they’re ready to volunteer after graduation.
SOUL Harbour also offers animal-assisted crisis response teams (AACR) that can be deployed during difficult situations. For example, AACR teams visited Judson University following the deaths of several students, and teams also helped at a junior high school after a student committed suicide, Diegel says.
One of Johnson’s favorite programs is SOUL Veterans, which takes place the last Sunday of each month and allows any veteran and his or her family – even family of deployed personnel – to spend 2 hours with the animals.
“That has turned into a remarkable program,” says Johnson, noting some veterans with PTSD have found the farm a healing place to be. “Not only are they bonding with our animals, but they’ve started bonding with each other. One veteran shared that he can talk to this other veteran about what he has seen and been through that he normally couldn’t share with his wife.”
About 15 to 25 veterans attend these special Sundays with their families, Johnson says. In October alone, the ranch hosted veterans from World War II, Vietnam and Afghanistan.
“Some of them, you’re surprised – you wouldn’t think they’d like animals, and then we have this rough, tough veteran and he’s petting Cupcake,” she says. “It’s really cool to see.”
SOUL Harbour has taken to interviewing a veteran each month and posting that interview on Facebook.
“That’s really turned into something cool, too,” Johnson says. “We were all in tears listening to this one gentleman talk. Others have expressed how our animals helped them through situations. It’s a very cool program.”
Free Visits, Free Love
Every time SOUL Harbour goes out on a visit, it costs about $500, says Johnson, but SOUL Harbour never charges for a visit.
“You have to consider the gas and time – it takes an hour to prep the horses for a visit, especially for a hospital,” she says. “These horses have got to be clean and sparkling when we go in there. We call it a spa day for them. You want them to smell good and look good. There’s a lot of time and thought in what goes into a visit.”
Still, Diegel is adamant the service remain free, and her volunteers stand by it.
“For lack of a better word, it keeps it honest and pure,” says Arroyo. “We’re all doing something we’re passionate about. We’re not looking to make money for ourselves. We make it for the organization. I just think there are a lot of groups and people out there who can’t afford it, so if we can do something that doesn’t have a charge on it, I know I get so much more out of seeing their happiness, and they’re getting a lot from visiting, as well. All of us are driven by the giving part of it.”
Whenever a recipient can pay, SOUL Harbour is glad to take the donation. Otherwise, the nonprofit relies on grants and fundraisers to keep moving forward. Donations can be made on the group’s website, soulharbourranch.com.
The group has big plans for the future.
In 2019, Diegel and her husband, Jerry, built a brand-new barn on their 5-acre Barrington farm with a fenced-in, limestone lot, and it’s made a huge difference to both the expansion of programs and the ease of caring for the animals.
“It’s enabled us to have visitors out here; we can do training out here,” Arroyo says. “And vacuuming the horses, blowing them, dry shampooing – on a dry, limestone lot – it’s truly wonderful. When we first started out, we were grooming them in Jodie’s garage. Sometimes they had so much mud on them, we were taking buckets of hot water and putting their feet in buckets to clean them before visits. So, we love our barn.”
The next big capital campaign will raise money for an indoor training arena that will allow SOUL Harbour to host even more visits, Diegel says.
“The more we do, the more people find us and help us,” she says. “Being a nonprofit, you’re always trying to fundraise and find where the next money is coming from. But you just follow your soul, and it just happens.”
Become a Volunteer
SOUL Harbour Ranch Animal Therapy Program hosts two open volunteer orientation sessions each year. Visit soulharbourranch.com to find out more.
Two SOUL Harbour volunteers, Vicki Coleman and Lynn Greifer, have written a pair of books about SOUL Harbour’s very own miniature horse, Mystery. “What About Me” and “Magic Shoes” are available on Amazon.