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SOUL Harbour Ranch brings emotional healing, smiles with an assist from some four-legged pals

SOUL Harbour therapy teams — which often include miniature horses — venture out in their custom van to visit patients at hospitals, veterans at assisted living facilities and students at schools.

Shortly after the final bell rings at Barrington High School every Thursday afternoon, senior Dasha Duffy walks out the doors and drives onto the picturesque hills of Barrington that eventually lead to the serene world that is SOUL Harbour Ranch.

“I really love working with animals and just being around them,” Duffy says as she leads a 29-inch-tall donkey down the road. “I love watching them and taking care of them. Once you connect with them, they really understand you and you make a relationship with them.”

An active member of the Soul Buddies Animal Therapy Program at SOUL Harbour Ranch (the name stands for Sharing of Unconditional Love), the fresh-faced student with her hair brushed back into a neat ponytail then instinctively takes the face of the miniature donkey named Bugsy into her hands.

“I just really like making people happy and just being around these animals makes people happy,” she explains quietly.

Bugsy is just one of the plethora of the ranch’s miniature donkeys, horses and dogs that have or soon will provide happiness and much needed therapy to countless men, women and children throughout the greater Chicago area.

A SOUL Harbour Ranch miniature horse visits with a young patient at Loyola Medical Center.
A SOUL Harbour Ranch miniature horse visits with a young patient at Loyola Medical Center.
Courtesy Jodie Diegel

“People see our animals and they think they are cute, but they are so much more,” explains Jodie Diegel, founder and president of SOUL Harbour Ranch Animal Therapy Program, which since 2013 has worked to promote the healing nature of the human-animal bond. “People connect with animals and our animals connect with people in a way that we can’t. That is so healing for so many people, and we need more of that in the world today.”

Sharing that unconditional love has taken a number of different forms through the years, with the therapy teams at SOUL Harbour venturing out in their custom van to visit patients at hospitals, veterans at assisted living facilities and students at schools, through a series of programs custom-created to offer emotional healing to those who need it most.

Charmer, a silver dapple Appaloosa mare miniature horse, waits before heading out for a walk at SOUL Harbour Ranch.
Charmer, a silver dapple Appaloosa mare miniature horse, waits before heading out for a walk at SOUL Harbour Ranch.
Brian Ernst/Sun-Times

“We have seen some incredible stories unfold in front of us,” says Diegel, who currently has 20 registered therapy teams working alongside of her at SOUL Harbour . “Visits can be sad, but they can also be filled with smiles and joy and laughter, and that’s the true healing. It’s the sharing of unconditional love, and that’s the inspiration of our tagline. Animals are good for our soul.”

Of course, Diegel can’t do it alone.

In addition to having her husband and fellow SOUL Harbour owner, Jerry Diegel, by her side to take care of various ranch responsibilities, Diegel also relies on a dedicated force of volunteers whose love of animals have propelled them to be a part of this sort of therapeutic care.

“There is nothing like watching this light go on in people’s eyes where they say ‘wow that was the best day ever. I feel so much better today’,” says SOUL Harbour Ranch founder and president Jodie Diegel.
“There is nothing like watching this light go on in people’s eyes where they say ‘wow that was the best day ever. I feel so much better today’,” says SOUL Harbour Ranch founder and president Jodie Diegel, shown with open heart transplant recipient Chistopher, and mini therapy horse Turnabout. “That has made me a happier person. I know that this is what I’m supposed to do. I am driven to do this.”
Courtesy Jodie Diegel

“There was a girl who had been at the hospital for months but she was in isolation, so every time we would visit, she could just wave to us, but that was it,” explains Hoffman Estates resident Anne Arroyo, who serves as a volunteer handler as well as a member of the Soul Harbour Ranch Advisory Committee. “But the last time I was there she was finally able to touch the horse. And her smile? I mean, the nurses and her mom basically said that they hadn’t seen that smile in a while.”

“We have 34 volunteers right now and they are all in various stages of training,” adds Diegel. “The time and the love and the commitment and the passion of our volunteers… there is just nothing like it. We are an all-volunteer organization and they all are absolutely priceless.”

Indeed, Diegel often wonders where SOUL Harbour Ranch would be without the help of not only volunteers, but the people who have made the conscious decision to support the non-profit’s mission financially.

“We don’t charge for visits, so we do rely on our funders and donors and people [who] believe in our passion and mission to help others through animal therapy,” says Diegel. “Right now we serve about 15,000 people per year and we’d love to grow that even more. We are committed to building a barn and we are hoping to include more people and more programs on our site here. There is a peace out here, a peaceful tranquility that we want to be able to share with everybody.”

The 56-year-old mother of three who also works full-time as a certified legal nurse consultant at a Chicago law firm suddenly looks around and breaks the silence of the moment with a set of directions for the students who have assembled at the ranch for another afternoon of training.

Therapy dogs are also part of the team at SOUL Harbour Ranch, which utilizes the specially trained canines to help bring smiles to the faces of patients in hospitals and other medical facilities.
Therapy dogs are also part of the team at SOUL Harbour Ranch, which utilizes the specially trained canines to help bring smiles to the faces of patients in hospitals and other medical facilities.
Courtesy Jodie Diegel

And then she continues.

“What we do here is my truest self and the truest self of so many of our volunteers,” she says. “I’m a nurse and an animal lover and a giver. There is nothing like watching this light go on in people’s eyes where they say ‘wow that was the best day ever. I feel so much better today.’ That has made me a happier person. I know that this is what I’m supposed to do. I am driven to do this.”

For more information on SOUL Harbour Ranch and its programs, visit soulharbourranch.com

Tricia Despres is a local freelance writer.