Saturday, about 550 people turned out for a day of fun on the farm at Waterford Country School in Quaker Hill. People lined up for tractor-pulled and horse-drawn hayrides and kids of all ages enjoyed pony rides around a paddock. There were miniature horses and ponies to pet, along with llamas and goats in pens and rabbits and ferrets in cages.
There were plenty of exotic animals to view, too. Waterford Country School’s primary mission is to help children but it’s also a rehabilitation center for injured animals such as squirrels and turtles, and a permanent home to a variety of raptors whose injuries make them unable to survive in the wild. The school also boasts a varied collection of exotic pets, including parrots, a python, and an iguana, which people have donated.
The free Family Fun Day held each year is open to the public as part of Waterford Week. In the 17 years that Waterford Country School has held the event, it’s only rained once and even then about 100 people showed up.
“It’s our way of giving back to the community,” says Julianna Velazquez, director of development and community support for Waterford Country School.
Yet though the school is open to the public just a few times a year, the Waterford Country School serves the community in many ways all year round. This former dairy farm was initially used by the New York-based Country School as a summer camp for students with special needs. In the 1950s, the school, originally founded in 1922 by Ettie and Henry Schacht, relocated lock, livestock and barrel to the 350-acre farm in Waterford. It’s been giving kids hands-on learning experiences with animals ever since through a program known as Experiential Learning.
On the farm, kids learn responsibility by doing chores and taking care of the many birds, chickens, turkeys, and animals such as rabbits, goats, llamas, and ponies. Students at the school spend about 45 minutes a day doing chores, walking the miniature horses, and learning about animals.
“It’s a good way for them to develop relationships with animals as well as learning about them,” says Velazquez.
Over the years the school’s mission has gradually expanded to meet changing needs and now serves students struggling with developmental, emotional, and behavioral issues. Today, the school includes a 30-bed residential treatment program, a transitional group home for adolescent boys, a special education program, a day school with small class sizes for children who have not been well-served by traditional schools, and a therapeutic horseback riding for children with special needs.
Waterford Country School is one of just three places in Eastern Connecticut offering emergency shelter for children and teens ages 11 to 17 and a safe homes program offering emergency placement for up to 28 children taken from their homes because of neglect or abuse. It’s also the only program in the region offering foster care services for children with special needs.
The farm and the animals, however, remain a central part of the school’s core curriculum.
“There’s a connection with kids and animals,” says Waterford Country School Assistant Executive Director Bill Martin. “A lot of our kids learn to relate to animals before they relate to people. Animals are very forgiving. It’s just a beautiful connection.”
Martin recalls one particular teenage girl who came to the Country School from New York who struggled to make a connection with anyone at the school. She did, however, decide she would be the first person to feed the llamas by hand. Every day, she’d sit at the fence with her palm outstretched, sometimes for 15 minutes or more, until finally after a month of patiently waiting, one of the llamas began to take grain from her hand.
“We take kids who have been unsuccessful and help them become successful,” says Martin. “Most of our kids leave in a far better place than they came in, and we’re really proud of that.”