As a result of a few challenging, and disappointing experiences, I have learned to create a stronger volunteer screening and training and that has helped the organization thrive. We often learn our best lessons from mistakes and bad experiences, and I am grateful for each and every one.
As a part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ellie Laks.
Ellie Laks founded The Gentle Barn in 1999; it was a dream of hers since she was seven years old. Animals were always very healing and nurturing to her as she faced the challenges of growing up, finding herself, fitting in, feeling understood, etc. She majored in special education and psychology, and with her special love of animals and children, The Gentle Barn was a perfect way of putting all her talents and passions into one.
Jay Weiner joined The Gentle Barn in 2002 as a volunteer, but fell in love with the place and the two joined forces to heal even more children and animals together. Like Ellie, Jay also turned to animals for the support, love and nurturing he needed as a child.
The Gentle Barn started on a half-acre property in the middle of the San Fernando Valley, CA. In 2003 Ellie and Jay moved The Gentle Barn to a six-acre paradise in Santa Clarita, CA. The property is complete with large horse and cow pastures, a red and white barnyard for the smaller animals, an organic vegetable garden, lots of shade trees, and a panoramic view of gorgeous mountains. There are over one hundred and seventy rescued animals are safe and happy at The Gentle Barn, and there is plenty of room to welcome their visitors and the children they host.
The Gentle Barn has a second location in Nashville, Tennessee, and a third in St Louis, Missouri. It is their goal to open Gentle Barns in every state so that everyone in America can hug cows, cuddle turkeys, give pigs tummy rubs, and look into the eyes of these animals and know for certain that we are all the same, and deserving of the same rights, respects, and freedoms. Since its inception, The Gentle Barn has saved thousands of animals and been host to over 500,000 people.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
We have had so many amazing stories at The Gentle Barn over the last two decades but one of my favorites is about Julia, a girl who was selectively mute and our rescued turkey, Chloe who loved music. Julia was born blind and loved to sing. Because of a trauma in her young life, Julia stopped speaking. We had a turkey who had been through a trauma and loved to listen to music. I paired the two up and knowing that the turkey needed to hear music encouraged Julia to hum, then sing, and finally to speak again after twelve years. Miracles happen when two souls unite at The Gentle Barn, share their stories, and heal each other.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
In the first year of The Gentle Barn I had rescued a giant twelve-hundred-pound pig named Dunkin. I normally fed him breakfast at seven and dinner at four, but on that particular day I had a group of moms and their children and they could only come at three. Knowing that the tour would delay dinner a bit, I was sure that the animals would be forgiving and patient. At four on the dot, right in the middle of the tour, Dunkin woke up from his nap and looked out of his bedroom for his dinner. I called to him that it would be served momentarily and went back to helping the little kids hold chickens and pet goats. Dunkin snuck into the middle of our group and had a giant, twelve-hundred-pound temper tantrum, jumping up and down and squealing, making it very clear that dinner will be served on time, and not a minute late. Since that day we feed all the animals at exactly seven in the morning and four in the afternoon, and not a minute later.
Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?
The purpose of The Gentle Barn is to make the most significant social impact on as many people as possible. Most people don’t know about the intelligence, affection, and personalities of farmed animals. They also don’t know about the negative impact we are having on our own health and on the environment by supporting animal agriculture. By highlighting individual animal stories and helping people around the world fall in love with them, we are opening people’s hearts and minds to who animals really are and how we are all connected. This helps people feel inspired, uplifted, and encouraged to get through their own stories, and gentler to animals and nature at the same time. When we shine the example of kindness and compassion towards animals, we allow people to be kinder to other people and to themselves as well. This lesson of compassion is omnipresent throughout our social media, live feeds, private tours, field trips, and open to the public Sundays.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause
I believe everyone who visits The Gentle Barn is impacted in some way. Children with special needs seem brighter, teens overcoming trauma hold their heads a little higher, and our guests seem more in love with animals. But one individual that benefitted tremendously by our Violence Prevention Program was a victim of severe abuse, was removed from her home, but would not tell her story and was in danger of being returned to her family of origin. But through the interaction with the animals and in the safety of The Gentle Barn, she shared her story, got in touch with her anger and sadness, was strengthened by the unconditional love here, and was forever safe from her abuse and placed in a foster home. She was acting out on animals and perpetrating younger children, but all that stopped once she healed in our barnyard.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
Create stronger laws to protect the innocent
Stand up for injustice everywhere
(And Come hug a cow at The Gentle Barn)
When we look at the root of any problem: Western disease, environmental destruction, the suffering of animals, world hunger, even the current Covid-19 health pandemic, it is caused by eating animals. I firmly believe we can start to recover with a vegan diet!
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
To me leadership is about caring for others more than ourselves, giving more than we receive, and being our true authentic selves at all times as a role model for others to follow. I believe in leading with drive, tenacity and relentless hard work toward achieving our mission and doing so with compassion, respect and truth. I aim to be successful so that our animals can thrive, In turn we empower our animals to inspire our guests. And the animals enable our guests to shine the light of compassion in their communities. Lifting each other up is my idea of leadership!
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
When I Founded The Gentle Barn I was young, naive, and had a head full of dreams. I had no idea what it would be like. I knew that loving the animals would be amazing, and it has been, but working with employees, volunteers, and the public has not always been so easy. Each person comes in with their own histories, issues, agendas, and needs. Navigating them all has sometimes been challenging. I wish someone had told me to screen my volunteers more carefully. At the start of The Gentle Barn I let my heart and my compassion for people and their hardships overpower my intuition at times. I am a firm believer in second chances but not everyone comes to the table with the right intentions. As a result of a few challenging, and disappointing experiences, I have learned to create a stronger volunteer screening and training and that has helped the organization thrive. We often learn our best lessons from mistakes and bad experiences, and I am grateful for each and every one.
I have a huge heart and always thought that if I just love an animal enough then I can save them. We have saved thousands of animals, but sometimes we rescue animals who are too damaged and the kindest thing to do is to let them go. When an animal is severely abused but I can make it right, then at least the animal has a happy ending. But when an animal has been abused only to be euthanized, without the happy ending or living apology, it is hard to make sense of that. I wish someone would have told me that I won’t be able to save them all. But the truth is, even if someone had, I doubt that would have stopped me from living this dream or made the losses any easier. Each time is just as devastating as the first. But I am grateful for loving them and knowing them, if only for a short time!
I have always had big dreams. With big dreams comes big effort. And the dream and the doing can sometimes feel different. The dream is always sweet. And the mission is always pure and wonderful. But the implementation of the dream requires problem solving, overcoming challenges, setting up protocols, training others, learning from mistakes, and having much patience. These things are not as fun. I wish someone had told me that the bigger and more effective the organization grew, the less time I would have to actually feel the bliss of the dream. But I cherish every single minute that I get to spend out in the barnyard healing an animal, talking one on one in an intimate conversation, or just watching a butterfly; the still quiet moments that I had a lot more of when it was all new and young.
I wish someone had told me that I would sacrifice time with my son. When he was little, I thought that I could start The Gentle Barn with him in a backpack or playing next to me. But as the organization and my son both grew, they sometimes had opposite needs that pulled me in different directions. If I could go back in time, I would probably have started the organization when my son was a little older, as I’ll never get those years back with him. I believed that I could run a national organization and have a family, and I have indeed done that, but at a price. On the other hand, staying up all night with my kids to watch an animal give birth, working side by side with my family to open another location, and seeing the love and empathy that live inside my kids have brought me the greatest rewards!
I wish someone had told me that It would be lonely sometimes. I am laser focused on my goals and expansion and it leaves very little time for socializing or making friends. I think most people with a type A personality are probably like that. But I love working side by side with my husband and Co-Founder, Jay Weiner. I adore my staff and cherish my volunteers. And I love meeting each person who comes into The Gentle Barn and hearing their stories.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I believe that the vegan movement will bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people. It will create more health and less suffering. It will create long lasting environmental benefits. And it will help our animal neighbors. It will protect the forests, cleanse the oceans, end world hunger, and create more peace in our communities. It all starts with love, and love is all that matters in the end. And when we go vegan, we are bringing more love to ourselves, others, and our planet. I am trying to inspire that movement every day.
Can you please give us your favorite ”Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that”. -Martin Luther King, Jr.
Many vegans or animal advocates become so desperate to spread their message, that they become angry, judgmental, and critical. But that defeats the entire purpose to become vegan in the first place. For me it is all about love, gentleness, and kindness. I want to help people evolve to a plant-based diet and be kinder to animals, of course, but I want to do it by loving them as well as the animals I save. So, this quote makes so much sense about spreading more love and light in everything we do. I try to live up to that quote every day.