Animals as Natural Therapy (ANT) believes that animals can teach us essential life skills, help with the healing process, and aid in personal growth.
Sonja Wingard founded ANT in 1999 with the intention to promote healing with the help of animal partners. Wingard directed the nonprofit organization until 2020 when she stepped down, and Jaime Arnett took over as executive director.
Former ANT Outreach Director and Program Instructor Diana Meeks started volunteering at the organization more than ten years ago because of her two main passions: Mental health and horses.
“I think one of the most powerful things about this work and the way that it’s different from talk therapy is that it’s experiential learning,” Meeks says.
She explained how we can talk about a certain skill, but when someone is out with a horse, they have to actually put that skill into practice.
Meeks’ first job at ANT was volunteering as a mentor. Mentors have the opportunity to partner up with a participant, help keep them safe while they’re riding their horse, and develop a relationship with someone who may be different from them.
For Meeks, the most rewarding part of working at ANT was “seeing the amount of healing and growth that takes place at the farm.”
There are several different programs offered at ANT. Meeks was a program instructor for the New Horizons Program, a partnership with Seamar Visions Treatment Facility which aids young women recovering from chemical addictions.
A summer day camp for kids ages 6-18 allows children to meet new friends while developing valuable life skills and the veteran’s program is for veterans who wish to explore their feelings as they return to civilian life.
Mobile ANT is a service that brings various animals including horses, dogs, goats, chickens, and rabbits out to schools, elders living in assisted care facilities, the community, and corporate events.
ANT also offers an after-school program that serves children ages 10-18 who need a little extra support navigating the world and their individual challenges.
“Some of the teens we see here have been through an immense amount of trauma,” Meeks says. “One of the most beautiful things is that teens and people who come here in general, regardless of what they’ve experienced in the past, will learn how to start opening their heart again in a safe space.”
The organization has various other programs as well and hopes to continue to add more programs in the future.
Meeks expressed her gratitude for the community’s support for ANT. The organization is funded and still here today because of this support.
ANT is always on the lookout for volunteer program mentors, so if you or someone you know is interested, visit animalsasnaturaltherapy.org to learn more about volunteering opportunities.
The effects of animal interaction on human development are incredible, and ANT is such a perfect example of the growth that is possible and happening for so many people.
“Just being around animals is therapeutic,” Meeks says. “It lowers our heart rate and releases happy chemicals in our brains.” PO Box 31595, Bellingham, 360.671.3509, animalsasnaturaltherapy.org