Hope Will Always Whisper
Facing life’s curveballs is part of what it means to be human. Challenges come in all sizes and forms – big and small, physical and emotional. At times, obstacles can seem insurmountable. It feels far less painful to withdraw inward, when in actuality these are the moments when we desperately need to make a connection, to bond with someone who will provide peace and comfort to us during difficult times and above all, give us hope.
For children with special needs, companionship may not always come easily in the form of friends or family members – at least not the two-legged variety. Fostering connections with pets has long been encouraged, and numerous studies tout the benefits of animal therapies, such as those with dogs or horses.
The people who work for Whispering Hope Ranch Foundation know that sometimes, help can also come from unexpected confidantes: a llama, goat or donkey. Maybe even a turkey, goose, duck or peacock. The source doesn’t matter. Hope given from these animals is equally powerful, and no less beautiful, which is why for the past 17 years, the organization has been building a sanctuary for children – and, more recently, teens and adults – to interact with animals in a welcoming, non-judgmental environment.
“Pictures can’t do it justice,” says Executive Director Mary Clark. “Without fail, anyone who visits our grounds in person is amazed by the scope of what has been created through the generosity of donors and volunteers in our community.”
The rustic 45-acre Arizona ranch-style camp is situated east of Payson amidst the Tonto National Forest. A sprawling meadow rests at its heart, with stunning views of the Mogollon Rim. It’s bordered by mountains peppered with Ponderosa pines – a veritable sea of green in our otherwise landlocked state.
Whispering Hope Ranch Foundation was established when founder Diane Reid discovered the property in 1997 and had what she calls an extreme moment of clarity: she had found a safe haven that could harness the power of nature to heal the human spirit. Reid believed passionately in the ability to help those with physical, mental, medical or developmental special needs through animal interaction; what set her vision apart was the fact that she only wanted to take in animals that had special needs of their own.
“Diane envisioned a place where children could come and see these animals, who may have been born with physical challenges or have suffered some kind of injury, abuse or loss of a caregiver,” Mary says. “Her goal was to show kids that despite their differences or challenges, these animals have adapted and are living and enjoying life.”
Together with a small staff and host of volunteers, Diane set to work making her vision a reality, establishing Whispering Hope Ranch as a place for children and animals with special needs to come together and experience mutual love, compassion and most of all, hope. She recruited others to help her, and later expand on her mission.
Mary and her husband, Bill, are north Scottsdale residents who first became involved with the organization as volunteers in 1999. “Neither of us were big animal lovers back then,” she says with a laugh. “As you can imagine, our perspective has changed a lot.”
When the organization was getting started, there were no cabins or facilities, and day camp programs involved the whole family. “Everyone would participate in various programs with the animals and then have to drive to Heber or Payson to sleep and come back again the next day,” Mary explains. “With the mobility and physical challenges of some of the attendees, the process could be very tedious.”
At that time, there was no camp in Arizona that was built from the ground up specifically for children with special needs. Parents either took kids to states like California or Texas or made do with what adaptations were available.
Seeing the potential for overnight programs, in 2001 Whispering Hope Ranch Foundation joined forces with 10 children’s health organizations and partnered with Arizona State University’s College of Architecture and Environmental Design to brainstorm what a full-fledged facility could look like.
“It really made sense for us to build something,” Mary says. “We met with all of the organizations twice a month over a two-year period to design the facility so that it would meet the needs of children with a variety of special needs. We also traveled around the country and looked at other camps for inspiration.”
A generous donor then purchased the ranch and gifted it to the foundation, and with broad community support came the completion of the initial phase of construction in September 2005, marking the beginning of the overnight camp and retreat model.
By that time, Mary had transitioned into her full-time role as executive director and had witnessed the transformation of the ranch firsthand. From a large piece of open land grew an impressive facility that accommodates up to 126 campers, caregivers and medical personnel, with 10 fully accessible cabins, a wellness center for medical care, sport and activity fields, animal interaction areas, an indoor riding arena and a dining ramada with a commercial-grade kitchen. A splash pad was also added in 2012, perfect for cooling off on a warm summer day.
“People say they get a very special feeling when they drive in, and it’s true,” Mary says. “There’s a beautiful sense of healing from the moment you pass through the gate.”
Partner organizations are tasked with recruiting campers, who typically come up to the ranch on a Sunday and stay until Friday. The list of daily activities includes horseback riding and sports such as archery, soccer and volleyball, as well as various arts and crafts. But it’s among the animals that amazing stories of hope have begun to unfold.
During his time at the ranch, a young boy named Daniel became best friends with Black Beauty, a duck with lovely dark feathers who was blinded prior to coming to the ranch when a predator attacked her eyes. Daniel and his family had recently learned the happy news that his leukemia was in remission. Being able to connect with Black Beauty, as well as with another boy who also has leukemia, provided him with a chance to interact with both animals and children who have faced serious, life-altering challenges.
Mary can’t help but smile as she recalls another camper who also connected with Black Beauty on a personal level, a young girl who came to the ranch with the Foundation for Blind Children.
“This little girl told us she understood why we call her Black Beauty, because black is what she sees and beauty is what she is,” Mary says. “That’s a memory that has stuck with me. We don’t use any type of muzzle or restraints with these animals, so the relationships that develop between them and the campers are all very natural.”
She adds that they also don’t force any of the campers to participate. A young girl named Gaby, who is non-verbal, was once brought to an area with miniature burros named Kisses and Cuddles. At first, it seemed as though Gaby would stay silent, but with enough gentle prodding and love from the donkeys, Gaby’s giggle became infectious.
“Her mother kept repeating, ‘She’s actually laughing!’ over and over again,” says Mary.
Once the sun goes down, campers gather around the campfire, called the Circle of Hope, for s’mores and songs led by “Cowboy Charlie” Motley. By day, Cowboy Charlie manages the trail and arena riding while caring for the ranch’s equine residents. As if this wasn’t enough to give him rock star status among the campers, his nighttime guitar and singing skills inevitably seal the deal. Charlie is also involved in evening activities such as the highly anticipated talent show, where campers have the chance to sing, dance and tell jokes in front of the crowd.
“It’s a huge hit, but sometimes we have campers who are too shy to participate,” Mary says. “This is where Charlie makes such a big difference. There are a lot of kids who have been through emotional trauma, and when no one else can reach them, he can. He’ll show them a rope trick or teach them how to play the harmonica and take the stage with them so they aren’t alone.”
All of these positive connections, be they animal or human, add up to a big impact across the lives of campers and staff, not to mention the numerous volunteers and donors who contribute time and funding to Whispering Hope Ranch and the organizations it supports. Many volunteers live in the Carefree and Cave Creek area, including Desert Mountain and Terravita.
“The healing that is taking place affects not just the people who are being served, but the people who are serving through their time at the ranch, and that’s really amazing,” Mary says.
Mark Sklar, founder and managing director of DMB Associates, Inc., serves on the board of Whispering Hope Ranch Foundation and has said of the ranch experience, “Watching each moment unfold is indescribable. It’s memorable; it’s unforgettable. It’s hard to articulate if you’ve never seen it, but when you do see it, it moves you beyond belief.”
It’s a sentiment best encapsulated with an excerpt from “Whispering Hope,” a poem written by none other than Cowboy Charlie that encompasses how giving back to a few can impact many:
Hope will always whisper;
It seldom is a shout.
Open your heart and listen;
Hope will help you make it out.
This year’s camp sessions begin April 25.
Writer Jenn Korducki Krenn