‘Without much argument, Green Chimneys is one of the most important Animal-Assisted Intervention demonstration projects in the world.’
– Philip Tedeschi, Clinical Director of The Institute for Human-Animal Connection
I was honoured to spend the first week of my Churchill Fellowship at Green Chimneys (Brewster, New York) shadowing their school program for three days before attending their international human-animal interaction conference; Growing Together: Kids, Animals and Sowing the Seeds of Resiliency. Through an innovative nature-based program with animal-assisted activities, an experiential learning environment and a high staff-to-student ratio, Green Chimneys’ supports students aged 5-18 who have been unsuccessful in a traditional learning environment due to emotional, social and behavioural challenges. Founded in 1947 by Dr. Samuel Ross when he was only 19, it has grown into one of the world’s leading examples of AAI. With 250 students (half residential, half day students) and almost 600 staff, the program includes wildlife rehabilitation, farm classes, riding lessons, dog socialising, gardening and woodwork. Contact with nature is not limited to these sessions but is imbedded into the entire approach at Green Chimneys, enabling students to discover their inherent strengths and maximise their full potential in life.* Spending time at their main campus, I met students, animals, teachers, animal-experts, therapists, social workers and directors and witnessed the benefits of their work first-hand.
As someone interested in therapeutic interventions, I am prone to playing ‘the rescuer’. This is not always a noble thing, so if any of you share this tendency, take heed! For at the end of the week, one such encounter taught me a valuable lesson.
On leaving the wildlife classroom (home to a monitor lizard, corn snakes, snapping turtles and many more) I spied what I assumed was an American woodlouse venturing across the floor. Gallantly swooping down to ‘save’ the poor mite, I carefully carried him/her outside to be heroically released back into the wild. Luckily, the interns at Green Chimneys have eagle eyes. Before you could say ‘baby Madagascan hissing cockroach’, Xavier had caught up with me, correctly identified the little fella and notified wildlife teacher Melissa who escorted the roach back to safety inside the warm classroom. Perhaps it was a residual effect of seeing a hawk being released the day before that made me too want to be responsible for such a symbolic moment. Perhaps it was just poor bug ID skills. Either way, it highlighted to me the importance of awareness and understanding when working with animals and nature.
On further reflection, I realised this experience contained so much of what I learnt during my time at Green Chimneys:
- There is life everywhere. In every classroom, on every path, round every corner, you can encounter a special being. Whether a goldfish, a raucous kookaburra, a pensive camel with soulful eyes, an ostentatious peacock displaying to a bemused rabbit, or a lime green skunk cabbage pushing up through a bog, every living thing is noticed, appreciated and included at Green Chimneys.
- Staff know the nature and wildlife onsite so well that they can spot a 1cm baby hissing cockroach in a pile of woodchip from 1 metre away. Staff also know their students so well they can tell you who would benefit from working with such a creature and can explain to you how there are lessons to be learnt from the smallest insect to the wildest bird-of-prey. Whether inspiring curiosity, fear, nurture or protection, each and every being can prompt a useful intervention.
- Staff are observant, present and kind. They recognise change in an instant and respond quickly, with compassion and understanding. Positive reinforcement is used for both humans and non-humans and adds to an atmosphere that is respectful and relationship-focused.
- Being there is so unique and inviting that you will find yourself itching to get involved (though asking first is recommended!).
- This is because everyone – 2-legged and 4-legged – has a role and a part to play at Green Chimneys. Students, animals, staff and interns, everyone is made to feel needed and valued. Everyone knows each other, I never once saw a student walk through the campus alone. Interaction and conversation happens everywhere, between staff and students, students and peers, humans, animals and plants.
- There is no place for ego. To be with the animals, to really connect with them and have them accept your presence, you must forget yourself to a certain extent. For a student to ride a 1000lb horse, they have to let go of any idea of looking and acting tough, and instead learn to breathe deeply, to stay calm and to be present, i.e. to self-regulate. This is an invaluable lesson for a young person who may have difficulty managing their anger. As a student learns to bracket their ego and to build trust in their relationship with an animal, their self-esteem flourishes.
- Every interaction is an opportunity. The simplest tasks become manifestations of caring, compassion and confidence. Watching students muck out the barn, feed the animals, walk the rescue dogs, and lead horses round an arena, one can see how such routines build pride and a sense of purpose, enabling students to build inner protection for when they return to more challenging environments.
- Humour, play and sharing underlie so much of the work. No one batted an eyelid at my mistake, they laughed it off and told stories of similar moments they’d had. This was the response I saw so many times. Mistakes are not a problem at Green Chimneys. Everyone makes mistakes and everyone recovers. This is how resilience is built.
This was the first of a series of visits investigating best practice in animal-assisted interventions across the world as part of a Winston Churchill Memorial Trust fellowship. I will be producing a final report with my findings by the end of 2015. To find out more, check our newspage for updates.
Post by Ione Maria Rojas
*Summary of Green Chimneys’ work taken from their promotional materials.