an interview with the founders ellie laks & jay weiner
The Gentle Barn is focused on teaching people kindness and compassion to animals, each other, and our planet.
What was your background before starting the Gentle Barn?
I was a professional dog trainer since the age of 11. In university, I majored in psychology and special education and then founded my own dog and cat rescue, placing over 500 animals into forever homes. After, I opened The Gentle Barn.
When did you decide to start the Gentle Barn? And why?
I wanted to start The GB since I was 7 years old. I was lonely as a child and turned to animals. Once I realized that animals need help sometimes, I would bring them home when I found them lost or injured. My parents didn’t want a house full of animals and kept telling me that when I grow up I can have as many animals as I want. I would exclaim back to them that when I grow up, I’ll have a huge place full of animals and I’ll show the world how beautiful they are.
Share with us more about the animals you have rescued since starting the Gentle Barn? Does any particular animal stand out in any way? Have any of them changed your life or the life of someone else?
We have rescued so many and they all have had an impact on us. But, my first cow, Buddha, changed my life forever. She helped me host groups of kids and open them up to love. She hugged me with her neck when I was having a hard time and she helped me find myself and my purpose.
Your educational program invites children, including at-risk youth and those with special needs, to interact with rescue animals. Can you tell us more about these programs and the benefits of child-animal interaction?
Once the animals are healthy and happy here, we give them sanctuary for the rest of their lives and they help us heal children with the same stories of abuse and neglect as the animals. We work with at-risk, inner city, and special needs kids who won’t talk to therapists and do not respond to traditional therapy because they are too angry and shut down. Through the interaction and the stories of the animals, the kids learn kindness, compassion, and confidence and can find themselves in the barnyard. In traditional therapy, the kids won’t talk and it is very difficult to talk directly to them. But at The Gentle Barn, we can talk indirectly to the kids through an animal’s story, which is their story. All of a sudden the kids know they are not alone and there is someone else who has suffered their pain. The kids are inspired by the animals because if the animals can heal, trust, forgive, and learn to love again, then they can too. The interactions at The Gentle Barn change their lives forever and help them reach for infinite possibilities.
What does a typical day look like?
Waking up early and feeding animals, giving medications, and doing therapy on the animals in recovery. We host school field trips or private tours and then try to get work done in the office until we have to feed the animals again. To end our day, we put all the animals to bed at night with kisses and carrots. We also do a lot of traveling and training to start other Gentle Barns in other states.
You’ve seen first hand how the Gentle Barn has helped animals and children alike. Would you say your work has made an impact on your lift as well? How so?
The Gentle Barn has given me purpose. I have found strength and learned so much about life and people. I have also found who I am in the middle of it.
As animal rescue activists, vegetarianism seems like a natural way to go. When did you decide to go vegetarian?
I was 11. I met a chicken in my school and she was so scared. I held her and calmed her down and the principle came to take her to the slaughterhouse. I could not believe that a chicken and rice dish was the same as the animal I was seeing. I went home that night and declared that I would never eat animals again. My parents didn’t know what to do with me and kind of freaked out, but I stuck with it and ended up just fine.
What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced so far?
I am a very honest and trusting person who has had to learn how to set boundaries and protect The Gentle Barn from people who are not so honest or well-meaning. I still love and am open to everyone, but I am a little less naive – and that was a hard lesson to learn.
Do you have any advice for readers who may be interested in starting their own non-profit organization?
Yes. First, get very clear on what your vision is and how you want to be of service. Each nonprofit is different so they must be clear on exactly what they want to do and how they want to do it. Second, set up a 501 C3 and a board of directors who can help you fundraise and plan events. Third, never take no for an answer and never give up! Keep trying, problem-solving and moving forward and your dream will flourish.
What are your plans for the future?
I want to see a Gentle Barn in every state so that everyone in America can hug cows, cuddle turkeys, give pigs tummy rubs, and look into the eyes of these animals and know for certain that we are all the same. Maybe then we will have future generations who have reverence for Mother Earth, kindness for animals, and compassion for other people.
What can animal lovers from all over the world do to support the Gentle Barn and its mission?
Come visit us, sponsor an animal, donate for hay, or set up a monthly contribution. Follow us on social media and share us with you friends. Read my book, “MY Gentle Barn, creating a sanctuary where animals heal and children learn to Hope.” And mostly, adopt a plant-based diet where you will save 198 animals a year, an acre of trees a year, 600 gallons of water a day, and reduce your risk of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and dementia by 90 percent! If we all do our part of being more gentle, we will have a gentle world!
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