Amelia Keesman often brings her goat with her when she walks the local trails near her farm in Sullivan, a neighbourhood of Val-d'Or, Que. The interactions sparked by the farm animal are part of the driving force behind her passion project: she wants to build an animal sanctuary that will also offer zootherapy.
"Animals break down walls," she said. "When I have my goat … it's bizarre, so people stop, but I also converse with them. I have some join me on my walks."
"You have this connection that you wouldn't have otherwise."
Keesman and her fiancé Kenny Ross live on a rented farm in Quebec's Abitibi-Temiscamingue region with close to 50 animals — almost all of them rescues.
Keesman, an elementary school teacher, says that when she brings animals to class, their connection with students can be powerful.
"It's incredible, they work miracles," she said.
She says a former student of hers who had anger issues and lived a rough life at home particularly benefited from the classroom visits.
"I started bringing in some animals for him, sometimes it was a rabbit, I also had chicks for him," she said.
"We had chicks in class … and the moment the chicks hatched he read a book to them and he was so gentle … You just saw a completely different side of this kid."
Keesman grew up on a farm and says since she was always surrounded by animals, combining her passion with her teaching career happened naturally. Now, she wants to take things a step further by building an animal refuge and therapy centre.
"I want to create a farm...for people with difficulties, whether that be kids or adults," she said. "People with mental health issues, people with developmental delays, children with behavioural issues."
Keesman and her partner have a five-year plan to buy land and construct a permanent sanctuary for their goats, geese, ducks, chickens, rabbits and other future rescues. For now, they're offering a mobile service where they bring the animals to events like birthday parties and fundraisers.
"There's a real need for it here," she said. "It offers a side of mental health that the hospitals or the other therapists can't offer."
"Animals, they don't have expectations, they don't judge," she said.
Keesman's long-term goal is to combine zootherapy with the expertise of trained professionals. She hopes to invite counsellors, therapists, teachers and their patients or students to come spend some time on the farm.
"We want to provide programs for them with professionals," she said, "A place where they can kind of let loose and reap the benefits that animals have to offer."
Keesman, who graduated with minors in psychology and disability studies, says she envisions her future barn being accessible and inclusive to everyone: seniors, people living with disabilities, teenagers and children. She wants to create space for fun interactions but also have quiet spaces where people can relax and be alone.
"We want to make that connection with people but also we want to continue as a sanctuary for farm animals," she said.
"Connecting the whole community is really our goal."