They may be itty bitty, but the joy and hope they bring to children, teens, and seniors is enormous. A team of three miniature horses and one mini donkey serves as healers in animal-assisted therapy programs and as friends in animal-assisted activity programs around Idaho’s Treasure Valley.
The nonprofit organization called Mini Joys Inc. is the brainchild of Laurie Bell, founder and executive director. A physical education teacher and longtime horsewoman, she started the program part-time in 2009 after watching an Animal Planet segment that featured mini horses visiting sick kids in the hospital.
The program has grown over the years with the help of about 50 volunteers, many of them teenagers. Now retired from teaching for more than 20 years, Laurie combines her love of animals and people with her experience as an educator to provide life-changing experiences for both program participants and volunteers.
The full-time program now serves 3,000 to 4,000 people each year, including kids with special needs, at-risk youth, children in hospitals, seniors, and veterans (minijoys.org).
Whether a child battling cancer or a teen in a shelter home, a family with a disabled child, or a senior in memory care, the burden of life’s difficulties is temporarily lifted with the clatter of tiny hooves and a welcoming whinny.
“Mini Joys uses gentle, miniature horses and big-hearted volunteers to bring joy and hope to those facing very tough challenges,” said Bell.
Not all animals are suitable for being part of a therapy team, according to the American Miniature Horse Association (amha.org). The association uses Pet Partners Therapy Animal Program guidelines to help owners evaluate their animal’s readiness to serve.
First and foremost, a therapy animal must welcome interactions with new people and be comfortable being petted or hugged, sometimes clumsily.
Besides being calm and obedient, confident and well-behaved, Levi, Spunky, Sophie (the mini horses), and Hope (the mini donkey) have something else that sets them apart: compassion.
Bell chose Levi as the first Mini Joy because of his amazing gentleness and loving nature. Sophie joins him as a member of the travel team, while Spunky and Hope entertain guests at the Mini Ranch in the Boise foothills.
Another addition to the herd is Wrangler, a youngster who recently graduated to visiting senior homes, special needs classrooms, and hospital rooms. And in keeping with the small-is-beautiful theme, two more arrivals to the peaceful, welcoming ranch are miniature goats, Sky and Nellie — who seem to believe they are lap dogs. Their playful antics keep volunteers, and visitors, on their toes.
Promoting hope, joy, and healing is the mission of Mini Joys Inc. Its programs focus in five main areas, including special education in public schools or community settings; at-risk youth in shelter homes or youth advocacy groups; community outreach with organizations and activities like the Boys and Girls Club or the Autism Awareness Run; seniors in assisted living and memory care; and individuals and families needing emotional or medical support.
“Thank you seems like such a small thing to say for the awesome interaction and joy your visit gave to our veterans,” wrote Cindy Tatro, activity director for the Idaho State Veterans Home. “Our guys are still talking about how much they enjoyed seeing the horses and sharing tales.”
In another example, Levi and Sophie were a huge hit at Cynthia Mann Elementary School, according to special education teacher Elizabeth Blosser. Their handlers brought copies of one of the Mini Joys books, called Wonderfully Made, The Story of Hope, a delightful tale about being unique.
“The students listened to your story about Hope, the donkey, and could relate on how it is okay to be different.”
Another Mini Joys book used as part of an anti-bullying lesson is called, Big Bully Buddy, Finding Friendship. It tells the story of a full-sized horse overcoming his defensiveness to become pals with a pint-sized pony. It turns out there is always more to a bully than what we see, according to Bell, the author.
“Friendship was meant for all of us, and the way to find it is through kindness and respect.”
Bell was honored as one of the 2017 Idaho Business Review Women of the Year for sharing her vision of the healing power of horses. As she looks back on nearly a decade of work with little horses and a whole lot of love, Bell has this to say about the journey: “Everyone has a story and faces a hardship at some time in life. What matters is that someone cares and will come alongside you.”
Bell calls herself a “connection coach” and is witness to many people who later return as volunteers to give back. In this circle of giving and getting support, she says, “People volunteer to bring joy and hope to others, and, in the process, their hearts are filled up too.” ISI