By Hilary Felix

On a bright fall morning, I watch as a group of adults with special needs arrive at the Santa Fe Ranch. It’s warm, a trace of summer still in the air, and the expressions on people’s faces as they head towards the corrals reveal confidence and purpose. They’ve come to the ranch to care for and interact with animals, enabled by a long-standing partnership between the Santa Fe Ranch Foundation and the Santa Cruz Training Programs. Mornings like this aren’t unusual, but that doesn’t make them any less significant.

Three mornings per week, a group of up to 20 individuals with developmental disabilities departs from the training center’s hub on La Castellana in downtown Nogales and makes the brief eight mile drive to the historic ranch at the end of North River Road. It’s not a long drive, but what they find when they arrive is a different world. Cows are mooing, goats and sheep are bleating, birds are chirping; indeed the hills really are alive. Beyond the sounds, there is a lush mix of smells: fresh-cut grass, arid desert soils, and mesquite trees all accentuated by the recent rain.

It may not seem important to note the sensory details present at the Santa Fe Ranch, but in fact they are a vital part of the experience of visiting the ranch. We all have sensory needs. Some people like to sleep with the pressure of heavy blankets even when it’s warm, while others can’t stand even a single sheet. Some like constant noise, while others retreat to quiet places. The texture and crispness of food. Constant movement or stillness. The significance of these needs becomes even more heightened when a person has a sensory impairment, a sensory processing disorder, or any set of extra sensory needs that frequently accompanies a disability.

Here at the ranch, the environment accommodates a myriad of sensory profiles. Those who can’t see the animals are able to hear and touch them, those who only see can take in the sights, and those who might get overstimulated by the cacophony of a crowded public space (the zoo, for example) have a peaceful, unhurried, and low pressure environment in which to work and engage. Then there are the animals. They couldn’t care less what amount of spoken communication a person has, and instead they respond almost completely to body language and a variety of non-verbal signals a person sends out.

The animal exhibit has been used by Training Program participants since 2009 when Tony Sedgwick learned about their operation’s dedication to community based learning and saw an opportunity for the ranch to help. Lupita Fish was the individual responsible for organizing and directing the animal exhibit. She built relationships with the group members and the staff and was instrumental in helping everyone to feel welcomed into the ranch community.

Now, not only has the animal exhibit become a cherished event for all those involved, it is also the inspiration behind the ranch’s goal of furthering its commitment to its special needs participants. With a special education background and a love of working with animals, I have been brought on to make the ranch’s special programs, such as this one, even more accessible and specialized. I’m excited to contribute and looking forward to becoming a part of this project that has led to such distinct outcomes for all.