Spreading joy, hope and healing
Story McCale Ashenbrener
During Laurie Bell’s 21 years as an elementary Physical Education teacher, she learned how crucial it was to celebrate her students’ strengths and nurture their resilience in trying new things. “My overall goal was to create an environment where we built each other up and were not afraid to fail.”
In 2009 when Bell made the leap to start Mini Joys, a nonprofit outreach that uses gentle miniature horses and volunteers to bring joy and hope to those who are struggling, this philosophy carried over in the development of the programs. “We want our participants to value themselves as they celebrate their strengths, and learn to accept that we all have areas of weakness and challenge.” Whether it is at-risk youth who have gone through trauma, a family with a terminally-ill child, senior veterans, or children with disabilities, the connections made with miniature horses are powerful. “Horses are extremely perceptive animals, a fairly large portion of their brains are dedicated to emotions and feelings,” asserts Bell. Through facilitated interaction with Mini Joys’ horses, programs strive to allow “walls of hurt and sadness to break down and impactful communication to take place between the social worker, teacher, counselor, or the staff or volunteers.”
At Mini Joys Laurie Bell is the sole staff and stays quite busy as the Executive Director, program developer, volunteer trainer and coordinator, curriculum writer and head barn pooper-scooper. She is proud of the fact that they keep the expenses “mini” and the outreach large. Mini Joys relies on about 50 huge-hearted volunteers that carry-out around 45 large group programs yearly, providing outreach to school special needs classrooms, shelter homes, assisted living facilities and the Children’s Hospital. Bell explains, “For the group programs at the Mini Ranch we use large teams of 14 to 18 volunteers as we have the whole herd in action…4 miniature horses, the sometimes-sassy little donkey, and 2 little goats. The guests also enjoy the picnic area, and the wheelchair accessible treehouse.”
Yet Mini Joys is much more than the adorable miniature horses, volunteers have an immeasurable impact and set the tone of joy, acceptance and encouragement that permeates the organization. Bell feels blessed by the deep relationships and connections she has developed over the years. “Like a mom and grandmother who we got to know when their only child (and only grandchild) was battling terminal cancer. This sweet little boy lost his battle, and we stayed beside this family through that horrible journey. His mother and granddaughter now both volunteer with our team, and we could not be more grateful for their willingness to love on other children despite their incredible loss.” The volunteer team is a close-knit community that helps each other, as well as those they serve. Bell reflects, “I have come to learn that we ALL face challenges and heartache on this journey we call life and our volunteer crew is no exception. We have come alongside each other through so much these past years.”
The mission of Mini Joys is to spread joy, hope, and healing. Whether as a participant or volunteer, the perceptive and unconditional love of animals can help break down walls of pain and mistrust, allowing joy, confidence, and resilience to seep in. Mini Joys has new program volunteer orientation in late February and gladly welcomes corporate teams and groups for project volunteer opportunities. There are Mini Joys children’s books available for purchase on their website along with more information on charitable giving. Visit their website minijoys.org, call (208)-830-3227, or email [email protected] to learn more.