TURNER — On a cold December afternoon, Tommy the horse found himself the center of attention at Rising Stars Therapeutic Farm. And he loved it.

As five people brushed his coat and combed out his mane, the black and white American paint horse let his head droop a little, let a rear leg go slack. Although prone to anxiety, the contact relaxed him.

It also relaxed the people doing the brushing — all of them used to dealing with anxiety or other difficulties of their own. 

“Just being here around the animals, they just make me happy,” said 27-year-old Carliene Kelley.

Founded in August and run by Auburn-based agency Opportunity Enterprises, Rising Stars Therapeutic Farm in Turner serves people with disabilities. The idea: Give clients a place where they can not only volunteer and learn skills but also form a connection with animals that offer unconditional love and acceptance. 

“It’s magical. It really is,” said Christine Vincent, CEO of Opportunity Enterprises. “There’s something about them.”

The farm is home to one cow, two goats, two geese, two dogs, three horses, three roosters and several chickens. Many of the animals were rescued and have physical or emotional disabilities themselves, like Tommy’s overwhelming anxiety when he finds himself alone.

“Kicking, screaming, pacing. He gets really, really nervous. That’s why we have three (horses). We literally got a third horse because of his anxiety,” Vincent said.

Every morning and afternoon, up to half a dozen Opportunity Enterprises clients volunteer to help with upkeep, such as feeding the animals, cleaning the barn and making sure the pasture is free of debris. When their work is done, they get time to bond with the animals. Often that means hand-feeding the horses apples, brushing Brady the cow or taking one of the dogs for a walk. 

Many volunteers say they enjoy even the dirtiest work: cleaning horse stalls.

“I’d rather do that than anything,” said Kelley with a grin.

Some volunteers have physical disabilities. Others have autism, Down syndrome or other developmental disabilities. A number of them deal with multiple medical, developmental and psychiatric issues that can leave them frustrated and combative in other parts of their lives, but never at the farm.

“We have a gentleman that is in crisis all the time. He’s not with us right now, but I’m hoping come spring he’ll be back with us,” Vincent said. “I want him here every day because if he started his day, every day, brushing a horse, I know the rest of his day would be a lot smoother.”

Farm moments — how much the cow weighs, why the horses like apples but not lettuce, how to win a large animal’s trust — turn into impromptu lessons and skill-building exercises. 

The farm has also led some clients to set more goals. Kelley wants her own horse farm someday and is researching ways to make that happen. John Logan, 26, of Lewiston, visits the farm two or three times a week with a more modest horse-related hope.

“I want to ride them eventually,” he said.

Vincent has a goal of her own: Grow the farm.

The farm is expected to start therapeutic riding sessions and to create a garden next year. It is considering a partnership with Veterans Affairs to bring in volunteer vets. And because almost all farm visitors are adults right now, Vincent would like to get children involved.

In the meantime, many of the clients who volunteer at the farm say they’d be happy staying there all the time.

“I love it,” Kelley said. “I’d much rather live here.”

Have an idea for Animal Tales? Call Lindsay Tice at 689-2854 or email her at [email protected].

Rising Stars Therapeutic Farm owner Kylie Lavertu, front right and staff member Jenna Presby, back left, brush one of the three horses on the farm with volunteers Carline Kelley, front left and Mandy Powers, back right, last week. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

Rising Stars Therapeutic Farm volunteer Carline Kelley reacts as staff member Jenna Presby gives the farm’s cow, Brady, a kiss after they completed their chores on the Turner farm last week. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

Volunteers Ray Labreque, right and John Logan spend a tender moment with one of the three horses at Rising Stars Therapeutic Farm in Turner last week. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

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