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State’s first ‘farm care’ addiction facility opens

GARDNER, Mass. — It’s a substance abuse treatment facility where some of the therapists go by single names: Wilma, Alvin, Buckaroo, Eric and Smokey.

Modeled after similar programs in Europe, R.O.O.T.S. at Evergreen Grove opened Thursday, a state-funded effort that combines the rigor and responsibility of farm work with counseling. R.O.O.T.S. targets 12 to 24-year-olds with either addiction or mental health issues.

“Therapy takes place without it feeling like therapy,” explained Program Director Shawn Hayden.” A lot of programs bring you in and they’ll say we need you to learn how to love yourself. Well, that can be kind of hard when life’s been hard and you’ve been struggling and making bad decisions. You don’t feel very lovable.”

And that’s where the animals come in.

“We don’t do that here,” Hayden said. “We say, I need you to love Wilma the pig.”

Wilma is highly likely to love participants back — especially if she’s given a belly rub.

“The animals don’t see baggage,” said Hayden. “The horses don’t know that maybe you got in trouble last week.  The sheep don’t know that you’ve been arguing with your parents. They just treat you for who you are.”

“Part of what these animals do is help build trust,” said Therapeutic Farm Coordinator Katie Follett. “They give the residents accountability and responsibility, which a lot of people haven’t had in a long time with active addiction.”

That the animals are there to help build trust is sadly ironic. Most are rescues that have known shattered trust.

“Animals that have had some really traumatic experiences themselves, whether it be neglect, abuse or abandonment,” Hayden said.

R.O.O.T.S. is run by GAAMHA — a non-profit behind several substance abuse and behavioral programs in north central Massachusetts. Participants will spend about 12 weeks in the new program — a few hours a day — and services are free.

“We have a referral form on our website and anyone can refer to the program, whether that’s guidance counselors, parents, young people themselves,” Hayden said. “We tried to remove as many barriers as possible.”

R.O.O.T.S. is opening at a time when substance abuse is soaring — and resources are stretched. Multi-month waits for mental health and addiction services are not uncommon.

“We’re seeing this wave of overwhelming anxiety and depression and detachment in young people,” Hayden said.

Not only will participants provide daily care for the animals, they’ll also be involved in a larger farm effort: to save rare Newfoundland ponies from extinction.

“There’s somewhere around 400 left in the world,” Hayden said. “And 40 in the United States. And we have seven of them here.”

Those seven horses represent the largest herd of Newfoundlands in the country.

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