“Cancer doesn’t exist in our barn,” emphasizes Tracy Kujawa, the director of Angel Heart Farm in Nashville, Tennessee.
The non-profit provides a peaceful sanctuary to children with chronic or life-threatening illnesses and their families. The fresh air, open spaces, and huggable ponies are a welcome change from the doctors' offices and hospitals where they spend much of their time.
Kujawa, a four-time cancer survivor herself, started the program in 2001 after a dream inspired her to create a space filled with joy, horses, and nature. In the midst of her second battle with cancer, Kujawa had a dream in which she was teaching bald-headed children to ride.
“I was going through cancer treatment at the time,” says Kujawa, “and even when I didn’t feel well I’d go ride and I felt great. So I thought, well if it’s going to work for me, certainly it will work for these little bald-headed children I’m dreaming about. So that’s how Angel Heart Farm came to be.”
Just Being Kids...and Ponies
The farm offers families a chance to reconnect with each other and for the children to spend time just being kids. Each child receives their very own helmet and pair of cowboy boots, and they can ride any of the 10 ponies or horses at the farm (with the exception of a miniature horse who sticks to his strong suit—being adorable). Fifteen volunteers help keep the farm open seven days a week so that it is always open and available to those who need it.
A trip to the farm provides an opportunity for families to spend time together away from the stress of their everyday lives. Every effort is made to help families focus on each other, including an electronics ban and having only one family visit the farm at a time. Parents whose lives revolve around their child’s illness can decompress and take a moment for themselves. Siblings can also participate in all of the activities at the farm, including riding, playing frisbee with the resident Border Collie, art projects, or just reading a book on the front porch.
More than 350 children and their families have experienced the healing and peace found at Angel Heart Farm—some traveling from faraway states to do so. The majority of children who visit are younger than 8 years old, but regardless of age, every child learns how to ride. Children who are healthy enough even have the opportunity to take the horses and ponies to shows, like the Welsh Pony & Cob Society National Show.
“We’re very focused on [the children] learning to be responsible,” Kujawa says. “Teaching them that they are in control. They’re not in control of their cancer but they’re going to be in control of a horse. We really strive to teach them confidence in and out of the saddle.”
The powerful therapy provided by the ponies and volunteers at Angel Heart extends beyond the boundaries of the farm. When a child is too sick to come to the farm, Kujawa and the volunteers bring the child’s favorite pony to them—whether that means trailering a pony to their house or walking a pony right into the lobby of a hospital.
For children who are frequently the recipients of care, Angel Heart Farm allows them the unique opportunity to be a care provider by grooming horses, bathing them, and mucking stalls. This improves their confidence in their abilities.
“When our kids are at a hospital, nine times out of 10 they’re wearing their boots,” says Kujawa. “They have goals. They have something to look forward to. There’s a newfound confidence in them.”
An Amazing Gift
The uplifting experiences at Angel Heart Farm come at no cost to the families, thanks to sponsorships from fundraisers, grants, and private and public foundations. These sponsorships are even more important now, as Kujawa is currently in the process of buying property that will become the permanent home of the program.
Angels come in many shapes and sizes at Angel Heart Farm—from dedicated volunteers to patient ponies to a program director who pours her heart and soul into each family. The gift they give to families who are fighting the toughest battles of their lives is far more than a trip to a farm and a pony ride. It is an escape, a smile, a reprieve of normality. At Angel Heart Farm, children are not defined by their illness—they are simply kids riding their ponies and living their lives. Words may not be able to fully describe how much this means to them and their families, but the smiles on their faces say it all.