Thu10302014

Community

Animal Assisted Happiness racks up the smiles for special-needs children

Photo Courtesy Of Lisa Zuegel

Zach Rosenfeld jumps for joy at the sight of Bella the pig, one of many animals to which Animal Assisted Happiness offers access.

Froyo the goat has a loving friend in 11-year-old Zach Rosenfeld.

“Goats make me happy,” said Zach, nuzzling his face into Froyo’s fur.

Fans of Animal Assisted Happiness (AAH), Zach and his sister Ivanna drop by the facility regularly to hang out with the animals and the volunteers.

The goal of AAH, a Los Altos-based non-profit group that allows special-needs children and their families to interact with animals, is to bring happiness to lives otherwise filled with challenges, either health- or family-related.

“Our vision is a million smiles,” said Vicki Amon-Higa, who co-founded the program with her husband, Peter Higa, in 2009. “AAH is a sanctuary, a place where people can just be.”

AAH has become a family affair – their two daughters, Erica and Maya, serve as volunteers and train and care for the animals, and their sons, Greg and Jonathan, help as well.

The Higa family has always owned animals, and they loved sharing them with others. But two of their friends’ experiences particularly inspired the family to start AAH.

After the mother of one of Greg’s friends was diagnosed with breast cancer, she discovered that spending time with animals comforted her. The family also shared its pony, Lollipop, with a local girl with terminal cancer. When Lollipop visited, the horse would put her head in the girl’s lap.

“We often talked about waiting to do this in retirement,” Amon-Higa said, “but after seeing what a profound effect the animals could have, we decided to start small now. Erica and Maya came up with the name and logo with our sons Jonathan and Greg.”

The Higas conduct AAH activities in their Los Altos backyard, including tours for special-needs children and meetings of a Youth Advisory Board, a panel comprising junior high and high school-age volunteers. Within the next year, the Higas hope to establish a larger facility.

“A larger, local and public location will enable this unique and wonderful organization to expand and become a long-term asset and reach a much broader group of people in our community,” said Lisa Zuegel, mother of a special-needs child.

AAH’s vision has grown rapidly via word of mouth and visits to Covington School, Hope Technology, the Forum in Cupertino and Morgan Autism Center.

Zach is one of AAH’s regular visitors. His mother, Rita Rosenfeld, said spending time with animals has benefited her son.

“Because of experiences like AAH, Zach has expanded who he likes to interact with and what new things he’s willing to try,” she said. “He has to work on following directions and being patient and careful with the animals – a visit with AAH gives him a fun environment to work through these challenges.”

Animals offer unconditional acceptance, according to Amon-Higa, and AAH strives to create connections for special-needs children and the sick, opening a new world they may never have experienced before.

“Animals don’t judge you – animals let you be,” Amon-Higa said.

For more information, visit www.animalassistedhappiness.org.

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