Bay Area nonprofit helps students connect with therapy animals virtually

The pandemic forced many organizations to pivot and think outside the box. Jasper Ridge Farm was no exception.

The Peninsula nonprofit usually offers a hands-on experience, matching people in need with animals that might bring them comfort. But they never expected just how successful their move online would be.
The animals' fuzzy faces are meant to bring smiles and comfort to everyone, from veterans to kids with special needs.
So when the pandemic struck, the folks at Jasper Ridge Farm in Portola Valley knew they had to find a way to connect.
"Quickly we realized our clients need the support of these animals now more than ever," said Alyssa Houk, the nonprofit's executive director.
And so they decided to go virtual.

Jasper Ridge Farm broadcasted to an adapted physical education class from the Sequoia Union High School District on Friday. Through a computer screen, they taught students how to groom and saddle up a horse.
"You know that it's meaningful when all your students have got their face in the camera like this," said James Bell, a physical education specialist from the school district.
And while the in-person program can bring a dozen kids to Jasper Ridge Farm. Online, they can reach hundreds.
"And then we knew we really had something," said Bell.
The online interactions were such a hit, they expanded offerings and placed greater emphasis on mental health. 
"These animals are still— even over the phone and over the laptop— are still doing that healing power that we so believe in here at Jasper Ridge Farm," said Houk.
The students who participated in Friday's virtual session were able to ride a spunky horse and brush a silly goat, all from the comfort of their couches.
They said it's almost as good as being there.
"My horse is so fun and cool," said student Christopher Leavenworth.
For Jasper Ridge, it's a way to keep kids smiling until they can get back in the saddle again.
"It was like a big breath of fresh air that we could make a difference again in our students' lives," said Bell.
Jasper Ridge served more than 3000 clients in 2020. And they say the online programs work so well, they plan to keep them alongside their in-person sessions.