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March 28, 2014

“My Gentle Barn”

by Anne Paddock

At the core of every human being is a resilience that buoys us back to the surface of life. With every painful loss or setback that brings us crashing to our knees, we find some way to keep breathing and move forward.

My Gentle Barn is the story of how one young girl made her dream come true. Ellie Laks grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family whose members didn’t understand who she was or what made her tick. Told to be quiet, help her mother, and subjugate herself to adults and males in particular, Ellie was a lonely and angry child who didn’t know why her family put her in a box where she didn’t belong and blamed her when she was victimized. Turning to animals – and especially those who needed help – Ellie found solace, compassion, and understanding in the creatures she shared a special connection with. Looking back as an adult, Ellie writes:

They say that two people can have the same kind of childhood – raised in the same crazy, dysfunctional environment – and one can become a psychopath while the other grows into a normal, functioning adult. The distinguishing factor is that the normal person had a witness as a child. Without a witness, abuse or neglect will drive a person over the edge. I made it to adulthood intact because animals were my witness.

BOOKCOVEREllie Laks started The Gentle Barn – a sanctuary where abused and neglected animals heal and children learn to hope – in 1999 after rescuing a very sick goat from a petting zoo. Unable to stand by or turn and walk away from the misery, Ellie returned to the zoo every day for 13 days straight until the owner finally said “Fine, OK. Take the goat. But just get the hell out of here.” Ellie named the goat Mary and brought the sickened animal to live with her family: a husband, infant son, 8 dogs, and 20 cats on small tract of land that contained a house and a barn. When Mary was healed, Ellie returned to the petting zoo for the rest of the sickly animals whom she nursed back to life with veterinary care, a healthy diet, and lots of love.

As the animals healed and learned to trust and love again, Ellie realized these animals shared many of the same attributes as abused and neglected children. Withdrawn, voiceless, afraid, and disappointed by the humans in their life, the rescued animals and children were reluctant to trust again. But there was one big difference. Animals “seemed to heal emotionally much more quickly and completely than humans did” which had an unexpected effect on the kids who interacted with them. When children and teens would hear what these animals had been through and then see their willingness to engage and experience affection, the children responded. Ellie and the animals at The Gentle Barn “connected with the kids and showed them there was a way out of the darkness.” They just needed courage and to learn who to trust.

My Gentle Barn is a book with a message – a message of love, kindness, perseverance, and forgiveness. With simple prose, Ellie Laks tells her story through childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, and as the voice for the voiceless. She did for animals what no one else would do for her and at the same time managed to find forgiveness and show others that there is an “ordinary magic of believing good things are possible” by following your dream and never giving up.

 They’re my heroes. I’m touched every day by their courage. By their forgiveness and trust.

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