Tuesday, November 15, 2016

The Healing Magic of Fairyland

By C.J. Hirschfield

Last weekend was graduation day for the kids in foster care who had completed Fairyland’s Junior Animal Caretaker (JAC) program. To celebrate, we threw a little party with hot dogs, lemonade, a cake and a visit from the Oakland Zoomobile.

Graduating Junior Animal Caretakers meet a snake from the Oakland Zoomobile.

We started our grant-funded JAC program five years ago, and have discovered its healing effect.

JAC is individualized, with 90-minute therapeutic sessions for children age 8 to 12 who have experienced trauma. Participants are referred to us by local agencies (primarily court-appointed special advocates); all have experienced abuse or other extreme stress.

In learning to care for our animals, these kids learn empathy and responsibility. Most important, they learn that they too are worthy of loving care.

Each session is divided into two parts, starting with a 30-minute counseling session with Fairyland Education Specialist Shana Barchas and followed by 60 minutes caring for our gentle animals under the guidance of Animal Caretaker Maura McMichael.

Scamp and Pixie, our miniature horses.

Here’s how the foster parent of one participant summed up the experience:

“She gained an understanding of what family is. That’s huge. She’s willing to accept that she can still be part of a family even though she wasn’t born to these people. She gained an understanding of how people can love children even if they’re not biologically related.” 

We’ve known for a long time about Fairyland’s power to heal. Fairyland board member Ron Zeno (who also dons a Santa Claus suit during our Fairy Winterland week) used to run an organization that led court-ordered, supervised parental visits with children who were experiencing some sort of abuse. Ron’s office was nearby, and we allowed him free access to the park with his charges.

Ron Zeno as Santa.

Ron had 23 years of experience with more than 500 kids from his Oakland practice. Fairyland, he told me, was “a therapeutic environment” – a safe place where kids could just be kids.

Why is Fairyland therapeutic? Shana says that at Fairyland, children are able to pursue the things that bring them joy. It’s very clear to the kids in JAC, she added, that Fairyland is a space for them, with adults allowed to follow – unlike restaurants, for example, where they’re allowed in despite being children. At Fairyland, says Shana, “Kids can just relax and be children.”

She told me about the little kids who come to our storytelling time every Friday. After a while, even the toddlers will start helping her choose books and put away pillows. “The more they’re here, the more they begin to feel like family,” she says. “They like contributing to a community.”

The JAC graduates had a great time at their graduation. Each one received a certificate, badge and T-shirt.

Animal caretaker Maura McMichael (left) and education specialist Shana Barchas at the graduation ceremony.

One young lady, whose family is now widely scattered, welcomed a dozen relatives who helped celebrate her milestone. She had not seen some of them in years.

Fairyland’s board recently affirmed its commitment to expand our therapeutic programs to support even more members of our community—maybe even adults.

Are any of you adults feeling the need for a little joy right now? A little therapy? Grab a child and come by for a visit. You may discover, as many of us have, that Fairyland’s healing magic works for grownups, too.


C.J. Hirschfield has served for 14 years as executive director of Children’s Fairyland, where she is charged with the overall operation of the nation’s first storybook theme park.

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