Instead of wings and a halo, the angels that live in God’s Barn at Whispering Angels Youth Ranch in Gainesville have a mane, four legs and a tail.
The nonprofit’s thirteen horses act as angels to the more than forty children who seek hope, healing, love and acceptance at the ranch as an escape from their tumultuous lives.
"The children can be going through unbelievable times and they'll sit in a counselor's office and not say a word, but there's something magical about being right there beside a horse and they just let it all go, they talk to that horse,” said Marie Allen, director and founder of Whispering Angels Youth Ranch.
As the name suggests, the nonprofit was created to assist children ages five to 18. Each child is recommended to the nonprofit by a school counselor or social worker based on their situation.
Once a week, the child will visit the ranch and pair up with their mentor for an afternoon spent completing chores, caring for their horse and fellowshipping with one another.
Allen explained that the first step to starting a child off at the ranch is a horse selection. However rather than the child choosing the horse, the horse chooses a child.
Allen said each horse will signal when it has chosen a child by lowering its head to the ground in submission. It is a special moment that will only happen with one horse for that child.
"It's incredible, it brings tears to your eyes,” said Allen. “It's just the neatest thing to see that child grasp on to that hope, to have this thousand-pound animal going, 'I chose you, YOU are special.'"
Once the horse chooses a child, the pair are matched with a ranch volunteer, or mentor. The trio will stay together for the entirety of the child’s time at the ranch.
Allen said each child only has one mentor and one horse to provide a child with the undivided attention they need. Through her own experience with other equine therapy programs, Allen said she learned horses can comfort children in a way no one else can.
“I witnessed a little girl that had gone through unbelievable trauma and a horse that had been through pretty much the same...one day I looked down the barn hall and their noses were touching, and it was just that moment that made time stand still.”
Allen suffered her own share of hardships in the months leading up to the ranch’s opening. While she had previously felt led to starting her own ranch, it was not until she and her husband lost their home in a fire that she acted on the feeling.
“That changes things, it really turns your world upside down and you start to analyze and go ‘Okay, where do I need to go, where do I feel led?’, so we felt very led to be here,” said Allen. "My husband drove up on top of this property and we saw the sun setting one afternoon over the mountains and I thought, it's a place for God's barn and everything just followed suit."
The ranch has grown exponentially since Allen and her husband founded it in 2014. In addition to the equine therapy, the nonprofit offers a Faith Builders workshop for male children and mentors, Soul Food Garden to grow and harvest vegetables, art room, Mercy and Miracle Sisters devotion room for teenage girls, and a Faith Room for the parents and guardians of the children.
Allen said the latter is a place for caretakers to gather for emotional support during their children’s sessions. Each of the other ministries serves a purpose to make sure "you're filling everyone's cup,” according to Allen.
While there is pretty much something for everyone at the ranch now, the purpose of the nonprofit always has been comforting and encouraging youth.
"We started the ranch for youth because they're our future. And if we can make a difference in those children, if we can make just one little change, and give them a mentor or that hope they need through the horse, it can change the entire course of their life."
More information about Whispering Angels Youth Ranch is on their website.