By Megan Mann /SCVNEWS.comTwo hundred Toyota Motor Corp. volunteers braved high winds Saturday in Canyon Country at the Gentle Barn to build a new amphitheater, paint the barn, visit with the animals and hand over the keys to a brand new Toyota Highlander.
The Gentle Barn, a no-kill shelter for abused and abandoned farm animals that works with at-risk youth building relationships and self-esteem, won the vehicle during the “100 Cars for Good” campaign that Toyota launched on Facebook in 2011.
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More than 3,000 nonprofit organizations from across the county applied for a vehicle, 500 of which were selected as finalists by Toyota and profiled on Facebook over the course of 100 days. The public was asked to cast votes for their favorite organization on Facebook. Toyota is donating a new car to each of the top 100 vote-getters.
“Each of the nonprofits got to pick which car – we have a selection of six vehicles that we had available for them,” said Toyota’s National Manager of Community Affairs, Tracy Underwood . “The Gentle Barn chose the Highlander so they can transport some of their smaller animals and they can also transport people – they can transport some of the children that they work with and bring them out to the barn to work with some of the animals.”
Toyota Motor Sales is headquartered in Torrance, about 50 miles south of Santa Clarita. Underwood said that because they were so close, they decided to deliver the car personally. They also bussed up about 200 employees and their families to donate their time and a little elbow grease to build an amphitheater at the six-acre facility on Sierra Highway.
“There was a lot of dirt hauling,” said volunteer Jana Hartline, Toyota’s Environmental Communications Manager. “I was wielding a pick ax today. It was a great stress reliever, actually,” she added.
The first group of volunteers arrived at 8:30 a.m. followed by a second shift that pulled in around noon. The worked under the direction of Gentle Barn co-owner Jay Weiner, digging post holes, hauling dirt, and leveling out benches on a windy hillside that overlooks much of the Gentle Barn. Their goal was to be half way done with the amphitheater by lunchtime, and right before the group settled down in the shade for a much-needed vegan lunch, Hartline said they were right on target for completion by the end of the day.
“We actually dug out trenches to create a stage and built benches out of cross ties and plywood. I’ve got my jacket zipped up, but I’m filthy underneath,” Hartline said.
Ellie Laks, founder of the Gentle Barn was elated with all of the activity and buzz happening at the barn Saturday morning.
“Ever since the inception of the Gentle Barn we’ve always wanted an amphitheater where I can stand up and I can talk to the children that come on field trips or talk to the at-risk kids or even the public on Sundays,” Laks said. “We are so excited. I don’t know what to be more excited about, the amphitheater or the car.”
Along with the car, the Gentle Barn received an additional six-year warranty from Frontier Toyota in Santa Clarita, said Toyota’s Vice President of Philanthropy and Community Relations, Michael Rouse.
“I fully respect and admire what (they) are doing here. It’s a wonderful slice of life that, living in the big city, we don’t get to see.”
Laks said the Gentle Barn started 13 years ago.
“It was my dream since I was 7 years old,” she said.
It all started in 1999 when Laks found suffering animals at a petting zoo, and starting adopting them one by one “just to save them.”
“One day I looked out my back window and my backyard was full of animals and I said ‘I think I just started the Gentle Barn’,” she said.
That was on a half-acre property in Tarzana where she remained for about four years before making the move to the SCV. Today the Gentle Barn is home to 130 animals that are all rescued from severe abuse, neglect or slaughter.
“We bring them in and we rehabilitate them.” said Laks.
“We take animals that no one else wants, not even other rescue groups and we rehabilitate their bodies, their hearts and their minds and once they’re healed, they stay here for the rest of their lives.
“We work with kids in foster care, on probation, in gangs, on drugs, from the inner city as well as special needs kids and adults. They come in for a 10 month program that runs from Sept. through June and during those months we use the interaction with the animals and the stories of the animals to teach the kids kindness, compassion, confidence, self-esteem, empathy, love, trust, and to embrace their second chance,” said Laks.
“Outside of our staff,we really rely on our volunteers. We’ve got 900 volunteers and they’re always coming and going all day long and they do the crux of our work. The staff maintains the office and the barn yard but keeping an animal healthy and clean and fed is only half the job. The other half of the job is to make sure that the animals are emotionally happy and that’s equally if not more important than physical health because if an animal doesn’t emotionally have something to live for, then they have a high mortality rate. The volunteers come in and they nurture the animals and love the animals and keep them company and give them something to live for. It helps us provide a high survival rate even though we take in animals that are so sick.”
The Gentle Barn is open to the public on Sunday’s from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Find out more by clicking here.