“Ellen [Degeneres] is the one who really put us on the map,” says Ellie Laks, founder of The Gentle Barn, a nonprofit organization that heals animals who then help heal people. The moment Ellie’s referring to is this episode of “The Ellen Degeneres Show,” when Ellen’s wife, Portia De Rossi, paid a visit to the Santa Clarita, CA, animal sanctuary. “That really was the turning point,” Ellie adds, referring to the growth her nonprofit has seen as a result of this beloved celebrity’s support.
Today, the 19-year-old nonprofit has three locations — Santa Clarita, CA; St. Louis, MO; and its newest location in Christiana, TN, about 40 minutes southeast of Nashville.
The idea for The Gentle Barn was percolating inside Ellie since she was a little girl. Having experienced some personal struggles herself, she always found solace in animals. “It was always the animals that saved me,” she says, referring to the pain she experienced. “Every time I’d bring an animal home and my parents took it away, I’d say, ‘You’ll see! When I grow up, I’ll rescue all the animals and show the world how beautiful they are!'”
It wasn’t until years later, as an adult, that she could no longer deny her life’s work.
“Nineteen years ago, I discovered a petting zoo where the animals were being abused. There were dead animals in cages. It was awful. And as I went to leave, a goat blocked the exit, and she looked me in the eye and said ‘Will you please help me?'” Ellie recalls, the emotion still raw nearly two decades later. “That goat stopped me in my tracks. I asked the owner ‘Can I have her?’, and she said no. I said, ‘Can I buy her?’, and she said no. I said, ‘That goat is gonna die, and I’m not leaving.'”
Ellie remained at that petting zoo for 12 days. “The 13th day, the lady said ‘Take the goat and get out of here.’ So I did,” she says. One goat led to another, and Ellie eventually had around 15 animals — pigs, chickens, goats, sheep, even a miniature horse — in her half-acre yard in Los Angeles. As her animal family grew, her childhood dream began evolving into reality. People found out about her animal sanctuary, and more animals were rescued and added to the mix. She finally made it official, opening The Gentle Barn and moving to Santa Clarita, where they have two properties — the main five-acre location and a 15-acre healing center.
“We do two things at The Gentle Barn,” explains Ellie. “One is we rescue animals that nobody else wants — they’re too old, too sick, too lame — and we heal them. And then we either adopt them out to homes or give them sanctuary with us for the rest of their lives. Then, when the animals are ready, they help with the mission to heal people who have the same struggles of abuse.”
Ellie, who majored in special education and psychology, had firsthand experience with the healing powers of animals, and that is at the very heart of her work with The Gentle Barn. “Whether it’s a foster agency, a drug and alcohol rehab, domestic violence shelter, special needs class, probation camp — there is always a part of the population that won’t respond to traditional therapy,” she explains. “So we contact those agencies and tell them to bring the part of their population that’s not responding to traditional therapy to The Gentle Barn. When they come here, we don’t ask them to talk. Instead, we tell them the animals’ stories, and within a very short time, these kids, who are so shut down and angry, make the connection and they start talking. They know they’re not alone and that someone else has shared their pain. They learn that if the animal can end up healthy and happy and with an amazing life, they can too. And then from there, the therapist has a starting point.”
Today, The Gentle Barn provides a happy home for nearly 200 animals among the three locations. But the Tennessee location has been getting the most attention of late as Ellie and her family have spent the summer getting the property ready to open for business, which happens this weekend.
“Our goal is to get in front of as many people as we can to make connections between nature, animals and people,” explains Ellie, who hopes to eventually have Gentle Barn locations in all 50 states. “At The Gentle Barn, we have the rare opportunity to see how cows are allowed to live and celebrate birth and grieve death. These animals have best friends, they have language, and they have intelligence, and one day the world will come to that conclusion. And when that happens, we will not only have peace for animals and the planet, but we will be a kinder species, and we will have peace for each other.”
As The Gentle Barn approaches its 20th anniversary, Ellie and her husband Jay, who she met when he began volunteering at the California Gentle Barn location, are making plans for a big celebration. “We’re going to have a gala in LA and invite our supporters, have celebrity performances, gourmet food, show movies and slideshows of The Gentle Barn from its inception, talk about incredible rescues and have guest speakers who have been touched by The Gentle Barn,” she says, with the widest smile. She’s also planning to write a second book. Her first, My Gentle Barn, covers the first 10 years of the organization; the second book will cover the second decade and will include the additional locations that have been added in Missouri and Tennessee. And because Ellie’s work is never done, she also has her sights set on the fourth Gentle Barn location, which she wants to open in New York. “If I have my way, it will be in the middle of Central Park,” Ellie says. And we have a feeling if anyone can make that happen, it’s Ellie Laks.
“I’m finally living the childhood I always wanted,” Ellie says. And there are many, many people and animals who are thankful that she is.
On Sunday, August 26, The Gentle Barn’s 40-acre Middle Tennessee property will officially open to the public. Guests are invited to hug the animals and learn their stories every Sunday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Admission is $20 for adults, $10 for kids; falling in love with the animals is guaranteed and free of charge. For larger donation amounts, extended visits and VIP tours are also available. Also look for special events taking place throughout the year, all with a decidedly Tennessee twist. “Because we’re in Nashville, we’re going to incorporate music into everything we do,” says Ellie, “from artists playing music for therapy to having drum circles with at-risk youth.”
We’re pretty positive that there’s not a better place to spend time in Tennessee than at The Gentle Barn.
To learn more about The Gentle Barn, to line up a visit, to donate and more, visit gentlebarn.org.
All photography by Annie Reeves.