A 7-year-old boy with severe disabilities who usually spends his days in an unresponsive haze in his wheelchair is running his fingers through the mane of a miniature pony named Chocolate -- and giggling.
"It's a miracle," his mother tells Pepper Salter Edmiston, the founder of the Happy Trails Dude Ranch, a program that brings severely disabled children into contact with friendly animals. The program often evokes responses from the children of which their parents thought were no longer capable.
Edmiston, a Conservative Jew and a mother of seven from Beverly Hills, is no stranger to sick children. When her oldest son, David, now 29, was 2, he was diagnosed with leukemia. His treatment led to severe brain damage, and, after her initial anguish, Edmiston decided to do something to help David and children like him. The result was a camp for kids with cancer, Good Times, which eventually became Ronald McDonald Camp for Good Times. When Edmiston was outsted from the camp in the wake of the takeover, she decided to start fresh and began Happy Trails in 1993.
Housed at Ramirez Canyon Park in Malibu, a 26-acre park that singer Barbra Streisand donated to the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, Happy Trails offers an opportunity for these city-dwelling kids to interact with nature. The program arranges for day trips for groups of severely disabled kids through special-education classes in Los Angeles and provides dozens of furry bunnies, miniature ponies and other cuddly creatures for the kids to play with for three-hour sessions. The children's needs and abilities are taken into account and they are matched with an appropriate animal.
"The response we get from these kids is incredible," said Edmiston, who estimates they host up to 1,000 children a year. "These are kids who are often unreachable and yet, when they get a little bunny sniffing at their ear, they display pure joy as any child would."
Edmiston, whose father is the former president of Temple Beth Am, believes that the animals are able to evoke such responses from the children because "they are out in nature, it's quiet and unintimidating, and these are city kids who are often shoved in corners and on buses. They don't get to enjoy nature all the time, especially if they have a lot of physical limitations. The animals just delight them."
To find out more about Happy Trails, contact Jan Wolterstorff, at the Santa Monica Conservancy at (310) 589-3200 ext. 111.