School serves students' emotional needs with the help of animals | The Big Idea

The lesson plan for Emma Volper, a 10th grader at Green Chimneys in Brewster, New York, includes mindfulness. As part of her education plan, she spends several hours a week practicing focus and being in the moment with the help of counselors and some less traditional therapists, of sorts. In this case, Zipper, a Norwegian fjord horse.

"When I first got here, I walked a llama and my parents were like, 'Whoa' because it's not every day you get to walk a llama," Emma said. "And then I got used to the peacocks."

Founded in 1947, Green Chimneys is housed on a 175-acre farm in Putnam County about 55 miles north of New York City. The school is a pioneer in animal-assisted education. It currently serves about 250 students, all with special needs.

Emma, who has OCD, said that she is doing a lot better since she came to Green Chimneys.

"We find working with the animals is incredibly therapeutic for the youngsters in combination with counseling, with good educational programming, as well as residential support," said Dr. Edward Placke, the school's executive director.

Michael Kaufmann, Green Chimneys' nature-based program director, introduced FOX 5 NY to some of the popular residents and gave us a sense of what being a student is like. Far less exotic animals, like Lucy the goose, are no less popular than the llamas and horses.

About a quarter of students are on the autism spectrum. Other students have diagnoses such as attention deficit disorder, anxiety, and depression, according to Dr. Steven Klee, who oversees the clinical and medical services.

"The thing that is probably common to all of our kids is they have difficulty with emotional regulation and they have difficulty with social skills," Klee said.

For students, forming relationships with animals is often easier than with other people, according to the staff.

The campus also houses a wildlife center with about 50 birds of prey, most of which are injured or disabled.

"It's almost like a metaphor—you've got a broken wing, you come here. And these birds are kind of injured and are not perfect," Kaufmann said. "What our kids come to us with oftentimes you can't cure. You learn how to live with."

Alex Ferrari, 12, has learned to live with his anxiety and better manage it.

"Sometimes I get upset," Alex said. "I just need to get out and go to be with the animals—and they help me cope."

That he has been able to find a coping mechanism is huge, his parents say.

"When he was in kindergarten, he did get expelled for his behavior," Gianpaolo Ferrari, Alex's father, said. "He couldn't control, he'd lash out."

"His diagnosis was anxiety and anger—high anxiety," Theresa Ferrari, Alex's mother, said. "Every emotion you could think of went through him but his little body couldn't handle it."

The Ferraris said that by the time they found Green Chimneys, they had reached the point of desperation because neither private tutoring nor specialized schools worked for Alex. Now, after five years, Alex is planning to return to his home school district, which is the goal for everyone here. Green Chimneys is meant to be a temporary treatment and education program.

The school, which also has classroom teaching in accordance with the New York State curriculum, is expensive. Tuition is $50,000 and rises to three times that for the 40% of students who board here. The cost, though, is paid by local school districts under state law.

For most, like Alex Ferrari's family, who unsuccessfully tried special education programs and private tutoring, Green Chimneys is a last resort.

"You find out when you have a child like this, you do everything you can to support the child and to find him the right spot, the right placement for him," Theresa Ferrari said.

"When that kid comes from a school where they've failed, when they struggled, when they really feel without success," Kaufmann said, "and they have those first moments of feeling really good? We've won."

Green Chimneys Brewster Campus | 400 Doansburg Road, Brewster, N.Y. 10509 | 845-279-2995

Green Chimneys Carmel Campus | 33 Clearpool Road, Carmel, N.Y. 10512 | 845-225-8226