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A Day At The Ranch

FREE and Heart Gallery NYC team up to

teach foster children new life skills at

scenic Saddle Rock Ranch

Even under an overcast sky, with some of the dirt roads turned to mud from visiting cars, Saddle Rock Ranch is still beautiful. The 15-acre property, dating back to 1812, is filled with wide expanses of grass, a tree-lined pond, a garden and some of the world’s calmest, gentlest horses. The ranch is something clients of Family Residences and Essential Enterprises, Inc. (FREE) with developmental disabilities have been able to enjoy for some time, but for a group of foster children and teens from the city on a cool winter Saturday on Dec. 8, it was a brand new experience.

It may seem like the goal of the outing was to get city kids out in the fresh air and give them a chance to interact with the horses and other farm animals (and that was certainly part of it), but there was more going on: for Heart Gallery NYC, a nonprofit organization that works to match children in foster care with adoptive parents, it was a chance to begin preparing the children for life beyond the foster care system.

As executive director Laurie Sherman Graff explained, despite all the success Heart Gallery NYC has had with matching children to adoptive parents, some foster children never find “forever families” and have a very difficult time transitioning to adult life once they turn 18.

“It’s a very sad fact that many of them end up incarcerated, homeless, the girls end up pregnant…no matter our best efforts or anybody else’s, there’s going to be times when they are not going to find the families that they need. So what can we do?” said Graff.

One answer is to provide classes to teach the children valuable skills that will make tackling adult life that much easier, as well as build confidence. On Dec. 8, after a horse-grooming demonstration, the children took a healthy cooking/food safety workshop, presented by Chef Richard Freilach from Suffolk County Community College. Moving forward, with the aid of SCCC, the program plans to utilize Saddle Rock Ranch to provide classes on a wide variety of skills: from financial literacy to animal care training and even art therapy.

Mary Lou Areno, vice president of institutional advancement at SCCC, said that the college was pleased to be able to offer these opportunities to young people in need. “Our culture of support and our academic focus means our students are ready to stride down whatever path they choose for themselves, and we look forward to bringing that same feeling of confidence to the young people who participate in our programs that will take place here, at Saddle Rock Ranch,” said Areno.

This isn’t the first time FREE and the Heart Gallery have teamed up; the Old-Bethpage based human services organization and the NYC-based foster children advocacy group first came together in the spring of 2012 with a photo shoot, where differently-abled photographers were able to work side by side with professional photographers to create portraits that would help match children with potential families. Robert S. Budd, CEO of free, spoke highly of the partnership between the two very different, but compatible organizations.

“From my perspective, this is the reason why we all became members of the human services field. This truly old-fashioned community organizing: this is bringing people together, for all the right reasons, to do the right thing. And that’s how the magic happens,” said Budd.

In addition to teaching life skills, the respite program at the ranch may have yet another benefit: providing a good matching opportunity for children and potential families.

“We want that to be a concurrent interest here as we are developing the programs,” said Chris Long, COO of FREE. One-on-one meetings between foster children and families can be intimidating for both the child and the family, and as Long explained, a situation where the children can be engaged in a positive activity may provide a much more natural, relaxed setting for matching.

“I think this is a more comfortable setting for them to engage with adults that perhaps are interested in providing permanent homes,” said Long. “I have three children that I have adopted out of the foster care system, personally, so I know that it works.”

The children themselves seemed to be looking toward the future as well, with several stating that they hoped to find careers in the health care field, with veterinarian being the dream job for a few.

“Horses are okay, but my favorite animals are dolphins and zebras,” said Jasmine, 14, but she smiled and said she was enjoying the nice change of pace, dolphins or no dolphins.

Sarah, 16, was a bigger fan of the equine population. “I like horses, I want to train them and stuff— I like animals.” It seems like upcoming classes on animal care at the ranch are bound to be popular.

This is an important time for FREE, already the largest human services agency on Long Island, servicing over 3,000 people; the organization is expanding into the city with three residential homes soon to open in Queens. Soon, the organization will be providing services to people with mental illness and developmental disabilities in four out of the five boroughs.

“It’s an extraordinary time: a time of innovation, a time of expansion, and quite honestly an opportunity to diversify our whole service network. And this would be a perfect example of that,” concluded Long.

New York State Assemblyman Daniel Losquadro (6 AD, Suffolk County) was impressed with both organizations for making such a great program possible during difficult economic times.

“I don’t want to overuse the term in the wake of Sandy, but in a perfect storm financially where we have a recession, we have less dollars coming into government, and fundraising for the not-for-profits is that much more difficult, it is times like this where the leadership of these agencies really show their mettle…you are really doing God’s work here.”