PERU — Kenneth Parker has dedicated his life to helping others.
As a retired minister from the Peru Community Church, Parker has been a fixture in that community for decades. His philanthropy, including years of humanitarian support to people in Jamaica, has always been a shining example of his dedication and commitment to those in need.
But when Parker faced an early retirement due to health reasons a decade ago, he knew he needed another avenue to carry on his desire to support the community and beyond.
He found his answer in what some might call coincidence but others will insist was a matter of fate.
“We moved here in 1972,” he said of the farm he and his wife, Hella Parker, purchased. They named the property Butternut Ridge Farm for the row of butternut trees bordering their land and the neighboring Everett Orchards to the north and for the splendid view of the Green Mountains of Vermont to the east.
“I love it here,” he said as he toured the ranch on a bright, sunny morning recently, with roosters cackling in the distance and doves cooing in a nearby roost. “Every day brings something special.”
DECIDING ON DONKEYS
Since his retirement, Parker has turned the ranch into a therapy center for children and adults with complexities in their lives. The central attraction he uses to bring smiles to the faces of those who have found it difficult to smile of late are miniature donkeys.
“Donkeys love to be around you,” he said as he patted a nearby donkey named Alexis, which was within a week of delivering a foal. “They love to get affection, and they love giving it back.
“I wanted to do something similar (to the work he did as pastor for the community). I wanted to continue giving back to the community. I’m not a native (of Peru), but I feel like one. I love the people of the North Country.”
Always fond of animals, Parker felt something in the field of therapeutic pets was his best option. He first tried raising rabbits — but found they were cute and cuddly but not always a prime option for therapy.
Alpacas were another option, but the cost of purchasing even one was prohibitive.
Then, while visiting Jamaica during a mission for the church in 2003, Parker witnessed miniature donkeys being used by the local residents and immediately fell in love with the animals.
He called Candace Trombley, the vet technician who has volunteered her services to care for his animals over the past decade, and told her he had a perfect idea for his pet-therapy program: miniature donkeys.
Soon after he came home, he learned that friends from Saranac had lost one of the pet donkeys they owned and were looking for a new home for the other.
“When the one died, the other went into a depression,” he said. “He stood by the fence and brayed all day.”
Parker agreed to take the donkey, and within a short time, he had purchased several more through the Internet, and Butternut Ridge Thera-Pets was born.
MAKING A DIFFERENCE
The ranch offers three distinct services: Saturday morning therapy camps for children with special needs; a Tuesday evening therapy program for grieving children; and a traveling therapy program, where the donkeys visit nursing homes, hospitals and other facilities to share their affection.
“Everything is free,” Parker said. “We do this because of the reaction we see when people come in contact with the donkeys. It’s a special, special reward.”
Like the two boys who had recently lost their father and were able to be children again with regular visits to the farm.
Or the youngster with Asperger’s who had not spoken to his classmates for five years until he had met the donkeys and couldn’t wait to tell the kids at school about them.
Or the elderly woman who had lost incentive to participate in activities in her residence home but now was there to greet the donkeys during each monthly visit.
Children who come to the ranch are given an opportunity to “adopt” a specific donkey that they personally care for by feeding, grooming and simply petting that animal, which truly seems to enjoy every moment of attention, Parker noted.
There is also a lot of attention lately focusing on a fairly new ranch resident, Buttercup, a female pig that loves attention just as much as her long-eared barnyard friends.
In fact, children receive a special certificate if they are able to “flop” the pig onto her side simply by scratching her belly and enticing her to lie down for even more appreciative belly scratching.
Butternut Ridge has nearly 20 donkeys, including males, females and foals, which are typically sold to pet owners or other therapy ranches across the Northeast.
In fact, the farm welcomed a new foal into the family when Geena gave birth to a male foal (called a jack) at 12:45 a.m. on July 26.
“We imprint our donkeys from birth,” said Holly Besaw, who manages day-to-day operations on the farm. “Within 45 minutes to an hour, we’re loving them, hugging them, sharing with them human kindness.”
Foals are named by letters of the alphabet each year. This year, Fauna, Flan, Flame, Farrah and Freedom have also found their way into the world, with Freedom arriving on the Fourth of July.
The farm has a webcam posted on its website, www.butternutridgedonkeys.org, for viewing births.
Foals from the ranch have been purchased to start similar therapy centers in other parts of New York and in several other states.
Besides the income received from the sale of foals, the ranch has had little options for financing the daily operations, but the business was recently granted 401C tax-free status, allowing for the collection of tax-free donations and the possibility of applying for grant funding.
“For 10 years, Mr. Parker has been funding the program out of his personal pocket,” said Ken Besaw, Holly’s husband and another volunteer hand on the ranch. “He’s taken everything and built this program into what it is today.”
The donkeys also participated in this year’s Clinton County Fair, and the community showed tremendous interest in what they had to offer, Besaw noted. He especially wanted to thank Fair Manager Glenn Gillespie for his support in bringing the pets to the public.
SaeJin Trombley also volunteers at the ranch, a service she has been involved in since a student at Peru Central School. She has a knack for calming any animal and plays an important role on the ranch, Parker said.
Parker’s dreams were almost dismantled in 2003 when the farm’s main barn burned to the ground, taking with it many of their animals. But Butternut Ridge Farm has survived to expand the joy Parker has brought to the region and beyond for going on a half-century.
“I enjoy the kids a lot,” he said of the youngsters who visit the farm. “It’s also a wonderful way to educate them. It’s a wonderful experience for us all.”
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TO LEARN MORE
For more information on the services provided at Butternut Ridge Farm or to help support the Thera-Pets program with a financial donation, visit the farm’s website at www.butternutridgedonkeys.org or call the farm at 643-8295.
Meet Butternut Ridge Farm’s therapy donkeys that travel to local nursing homes, hospitals and assisted-living homes, and find out why they are so lovable in a video with this story at www.pressrepublican.com.