June 23, 2011 —
MILFORD, PA — For 23 years, the Ciancitto family has been quietly going about their chosen work, down a dirt road just outside Milford, where they care for more than 100 domestic and exotic animals whose existence enriches the lives of people challenged with various disabilities.
The work roots in Donna Ciancitto’s childhood encounter with a disabled young man during which she became aware that not everyone enjoyed the same abilities that she did. The desire to help, combined with an abiding love of all creatures great and small, ultimately led to the creation of Country Ark Farm (CAF), a truly unique place where animals and disabled individuals interact in ways that benefit all.
The non-profit foundation provides recreational, pet and art therapy for mentally, emotionally and physically challenged children and adults. It is housed on a 26-acre farm where the well socialized animals live, ready to be touched and experienced. An enclosed petting area, outdoor play area with a wheelchair-accessible swing, indoor and outdoor picnic areas and a mile-long nature trail all serve the approximately 800 special people who find sanctuary, socialization and healing there.
Arriving at the farm, one may be greeted by Mr. Piggy, a cheerful potbellied pig; Bleat and Re-bleat, two inquisitive goats; or one of the many friendly creatures vying for attention from visitors and sidling up for rubbies. Domestic animals like donkeys, goats, pigs, deer and cows co-exist with exotics like tortoises, peacocks, bearded dragon lizards and a capybara, a large semi-aquatic rodent. The animals are mostly raised from birth to accustom them to human interaction.
Al, a longtime volunteer, notes that all the animals are different. “You have to love them for who they are,” he said. Human participants are treated with similar unconditional respect.
The non-threatening environment builds self-esteem while animal care activities improve hand/eye coordination and help participants to focus on tasks. The animals provide therapy through their open acceptance, and the evolving daily scene helps the children adapt to change. Areas are specially designed to stimulate various senses, and everything is geared toward providing access for disabled individuals.
CAF offers programs for various day groups and specially-abled volunteer groups. An overnight Respite Program provides a much-appreciated break for caregivers.
Summer Day Camp is held for campers between four to 21 years of age. The program receives funding from the Milford-based Ingeborg A. Biondo Memorial Foundation, which also paid for the state-of-the art specialized bathroom facility at CAF.
“The Biondo Foundation has helped our program immensely,” said Ciancitto. “They are just awesome.” (Contact Maria Crawford at 570/686-2402 for information on the summer camp program or visit www.biondofoundation.org .)
Ciancitto and her husband, Michael, along with their three children and a group of dedicated volunteers, keep CAF going with the financial support of local foundations and businesses, individual donors and the Pike County United Way. There is currently no paid staff, but Ciancitto is seeking a grant to establish a paid position to manage volunteers and conduct off-premise visits. Ultimately, she hopes to see more CAF programs established in other states.
“I really enjoy the animals and their babies,” said Ciancitto, “but I do this for the kids. To see their reaction to the animals, to see them smile, to see them grow and progress from year to year—that’s the driving force.”
A Family Frolic Day is being planned (see www.countryarkfarm.org ). Call 570/686-3480.