But when I looked into the backyard I saw a vision of green pastures filled with children playing with animals. That was the beginning of Sweet Dream Farm
Name: Rochel Muchnick
Dream: Merge a love for animals with a drive to help
Location: Jackson, NJ
I’m a city girl from the concrete jungle of the Bronx, but somehow I was born an animal lover. My sisters and I would bring home every broken-winged starling and stray cat that crossed our paths, and beg to keep them. Mom was very good at saying yes, and we’d lovingly nurse them back to health.
Eventually, we left the city for Monroe, but it wasn’t the religious hub it is now. My mother brought Torah with us to share with everyone, starting a minyan in our home and an after-school Judaic studies program, which eventually grew into a full-fledged shul.
By the time I finished school, we rejoined civilization, in Far Rockaway, where I met and married my husband. I worked my way up the corporate ladder while he earned his medical degree.
Back then, family-friendliness wasn’t yet encoded into American law or culture. The day I got my promotion to my dream job — setting up satellite computer offices for W.R. Grace & Co. all around the country — was the day I told them I was expecting. They grabbed my dream job right back.
That disappointment triggered some soul-searching. I wanted to be there for my kids, to instill values in them as my mother had instilled in me. Was the world of finance incompatible with those aspirations? After my maternity leave, the company’s flat-out refusal to find an opening, any opening, for me, their former star employee, clinched my resolve not to return to that world.
Still, I’ve always been a doer, and I’ve dabbled in a plethora of colorful careers, including decorating yarmulkes and tzitzis and creating a custom chocolates company.
By the time I had my third child, the oldest was begging me for a dog. Researching the best type of dog to adopt, I discovered the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel — a rare, smart, not-yappy, and non-aggressive little dog.
Realizing that the Cavalier’s sweet and patient disposition made it perfectly suited for therapy, I started years of schooling in animal-assisted activities and therapy. Finally I could combine my love for children and the special-needs population with my love for animals.
I worked privately on Long Island, until a confluence of events led to our moving to the Lakewood area. My husband and I had always wanted a large piece of land, and were fortunate to have sold our house right before the housing market crashed. With the proceeds of the sale, we were able to afford 5.5 acres in Jackson, New Jersey.
When I first saw the grounds of the poorly maintained horse farm, it was the dead of winter. The fence was collapsing, the fields overgrown, and the house in unbelievably bad condition. But when I looked into the backyard I saw a vision of green pastures filled with children playing with animals. That was the beginning of Sweet Dream Farm.
As my handy husband and son transformed the house, I set about rescuing animals. I located horses, goats, sheep, and chickens that were in dangerous or unhealthy environments, and adopted and rehabilitated them. “There are givers and takers,” I’d tell my kids, “and we are a giver farm.”
Before adopting an animal, I spent countless hours researching its feeding, care, and medical needs, and once its physical situation stabilized, I began to train it. The horses needed to learn to stay calm. Kids can’t be relied upon to be quiet in the saddle, so we’d softly bounce balls off the horses’ flanks to desensitize them to motion and noise.
Just like children, horses respond best to positive reinforcement. With kind words, pats, and treats, I’d gently push them out of their comfort zone. They learned to interact well with people despite their former rough conditions.
Up to this point, the farm was a fulfillment of a personal dream, but it wasn’t truly a giver farm yet.
Slowly, I built up my animal-assisted therapy practice, and I saw little miracles at every session. A child who wouldn’t speak would talk to a dog, or a super-sensory child would gather the courage to stroke a bunny.
We often provided jobs to teens with a variety of challenges, whether social, educational, or emotional. It gave them a fresh kosher environment in which to blossom.
A whole new frontier opened up the day a woman from SCHI, the School for Children with Hidden Intelligence, asked to visit. We’ve worked with SCHI — and other wonderful places — for nearly 14 years.
At first, the kids would visit our farm, but transportation was tough, so we began packing up our operation, goats and all, and traveling to the school. We’d spread out a tarp to keep the floor clean and work with kids all day in back-to-back sessions.
We joke that our mission is desensitizing Lakewood to animals, one person at a time. At first, some teachers wouldn’t even enter the room, but they’re wonderful, and they’ve gotten used to us.
Our therapy room, with its inviting farm murals and touch-and-feel decorations, is a haven for children with special needs. Some kids who have trouble focusing will watch the “sheitel chickens” — our name for Polish chickens that have what looks like a pom-pom on their heads — for a half hour straight, while others get tactile stimulation by petting the bunnies. Many students head straight to the doghouse and cuddle a dog without saying a word.
With positive encouragement, their issues and anxiety seem to melt away as they hug their animal friends. The students don’t even realize they're getting therapy, they just look forward to “Farm Time” all week!
The skills they learn transfer to the rest of their lives. If they can learn to share a dog, they can learn to get along with others at home. If they can overcome their fears and pet a rabbit, they can conquer other anxieties.
One young man in his twenties who’d never spoken, recently said his first words in our room — one of our dogs’ names. Now he tells us “Happy!” when he sees her.
Animals harness the power of unconditional love. It doesn’t matter what you look like or how you walk or talk (or don’t!); they’re trained to give.
Two years ago, we closed our farm to the public to focus solely on mobile therapy. Though the public farm had been the realization of a dream that was dear to me, I learned that as you grow, your priorities change.
Change doesn’t have to be bad. Nor is it bad to be a little out of the box. Hashem makes people different for a reason; otherwise, the world would be a boring place. Reflecting on the thousands of lives I’ve been privileged to impact, one thing is clear: Life is about making a difference through whatever unique gifts Hashem has given you.
What was your earliest dream?
I planned to be either an artist or a cowgirl. As a child, the closest I got to either was repainting and riding a rocking horse I’d rescued from the garbage. I taught myself English and Western-style riding from books. When I first mounted a real horse, it felt totally natural. Most people would have been terrified to jump over five-foot hurdles, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.
What unrealistic dream do you have?
I wish I could open a state-of-the-art animal-assisted therapy farm with housing and live-in counselors, where kids could spend as much time as they need in a therapeutic environment. I’d build weekend respite bungalows for families, especially families fighting cancer or emotional issues. It’s what I do already, but I’d love to do it on a mega-scale.
What is your dream pet?
My dream animal is a horse, but I can’t ride anymore, only hug it. I was thrown from a horse a few years ago, and my permanent injuries left me in chronic pain. I’d also love a male peacock, but they’re wild animals and can’t be caged — they’d be all over my neighbors’ properties. They’re also really loud!
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 664)
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