Storybook Farm in Alaska gives children back their childhood


OPELIKA, Ala. (AP) — Dena Little understands the value of the human-animal bond and how it effects people, having grown up around animals, horses in particular.

Taking bond a step further, she has come up with ways to help children going through difficult times.

Little runs Storybook Farm, founded in 2002, to “give childhoods back to children” by experiencing the human-animal bond, free of charge. The farm’s 51 acres are home to horses, goats and donkeys as well as a host of dogs and cats.

“What I want to do for the kids…is provide an opportunity for them to be kids. They’re just a kid,” Little explained. “They’re not a child with ‘X, Y and Z.’ They’re simply a child.”

The farm has served over 10,000 children to date. Little says that in helping the children heal, it’s important that the parents and siblings are also able to heal, so there are also activities and volunteers assigned to work with them.

“Wherever they are, these parents need to hit the pause button every now and then, and there are not a lot of places you can do that,” Little said, adding that visiting the farm gives parents a chance to watch their kid just be a kid.

Reading is also a large component of what the farm’s programs center on, with all of the farm’s animals named after literary characters that kids can recognize.

“I feel like the whimsy, the wonder you can find in literature; it introduces you to language and communication skills, but it also allows you to make a connection with the characters in the book,” Little said.

Even correspondence with families is done through literature. The farm will send letters to the child “written” by an animal that they interacted with during their visit.

People who have donated either their time or even resources to the farm will even receive thank-you notes from one of the animals. The farm has a great deal of community support and that, along with successful fundraising efforts, has helped keep the farm gates open.

Little hopes to have a grand opening for the Papa Bear Horse Center, a new barn set, by the end of March.

The Papa Bear Horse Center will enable the farm to bring in more horses and expand their programming with the extra space and resources they’ll be able to bring in. The barn also will be air-conditioned, with different rooms for activities.

One area, Ribsy’s Doghouse, is named after the beloved dog featured in books by Beverly Cleary, where kids will have the option to read by themselves or aloud to one of the farm’s dogs.

“The dog is a nonjudgmental listener, so if a child has trouble, stumbling over a word or takes a long time to read a passage, the dog absolutely does not care,” Little said, adding that the practice helps a child’s confidence and becomes a small victory for them.

Sara Medley, the farm’s chief operation officer, has been involved with it since she was a student at Auburn University.

Having already been helping out at the farm to earn service hours for another class, when it came time for her to fulfill her internship requirement, there was no mistaking where she wanted to be.

“From the first day I came out here I knew I wanted to do my internship here as well,” Medley said.

She said she was able to understand how important the farm was to the families because she had a 6-month-old at the time.

In the midst of the construction for the Papa Bear Horse Center, Medley and Little are in the beginning stages of planning the farm’s annual Kentucky Derby Party, set for May 2.

The party is the farm’s biggest fundraiser — with this year’s goal set at $275,000 — and the staff is expecting about 1,000 guests.

Over 100 companies and organization donate to the silent and live auctions that will take place during the event. About 20 local restaurants will bring sampling options, and local breweries and wineries will serve derby cocktails.