Special kids get a chance to excel
On sunny days, Rebecca Hengesbach can be found in her barn, dutifully feeding or combing the manes of two miniature horses.
It’s not hard work, 13-year-old Rebecca admits – in fact, it’s one of the most enjoyable parts of her day.
Rebecca was born with spina bifida, a condition that left part of her spinal cord exposed. It forces her into a wheelchair, unable to use her legs.
And though she says she often enjoys being in her wheelchair, “because it’s softer than my horses,” Rebecca is easily at home caring for her pets: Roo, an infant miniature horse born a month ago; and Cricket, the horse’s mother.
If she’s not in the pen, Rebecca is often with Blue, a squishy, cuddly rabbit the size of a sack of potatoes.
This is life for Rebecca and dozens of small children who visit and live at Hacienda de Colores (Spanish for “House of Colors”), a rambling five-acre ranch on Rattlesnake Road outside Grass Valley.
Children feed and care for chickens, pigeons, horses, rabbits, goats and ducks on the ranch owned by Liz Hengesbach and her husband, Dave.
It’s a place, Liz Hengesbach said, where her six children, including four she adopted, aren’t judged by their shortcomings but celebrated for their independence.
“I love working with my horses and playing with my rabbits,” Rebecca said on a recent morning as she and about a half-dozen children scooped eggs from a chicken coop designed with a special door that reaches a child’s shoulder.
Nearby, earthen planter boxes burst with springtime fruits and vegetables.
Most of the work on the land is taken care of by the children under Liz Hengesbach’s watchful eyes.
In the late summer, the children show the horses and other animals at the Nevada County Fair as part of a 4-H program.
Hengesbach does this all free of charge. The animals have all been donated, and Hengesbach and her husband built up the farm themselves.
“The greatest thing is that the kids are not seen as disabled,” Hengesbach said. “They’re able-bodied.”
It’s not easy for some of them, Hengesbach admitted. Laura Goetz, 15, a guest at the ranch last week, is deaf. Nelson Hengesbach, 15, has had multiple open-heart surgeries. Katie Hengesbach, 11, was born with Down syndrome. Teresa Hengesbach, 15, was born with a mild case of cerebral palsy.
But these maladies do not define the people who live or come here.
They’re normal children who need assistance in their daily lives, Hengesbach said.
The program is open to all, she said, anyone who loves animals and the outdoors.
Hengesbach home-schools the children she has adopted and has an on-site occupational therapist to take care of some of their needs.
Roy Kogut, Nevada County 4-H representative, said Hengesbach’s program helps instill confidence in the children.
“It’s an excellent program to get kids involved in, whether they are special-needs children or not. She does a great job out there.”
Catari Lacorazza, an occupational therapist for Hacienda de Colores, said working is an important piece of each child’s therapy.
“It is very important because it gives them a sense of accomplishment because animals aren’t judgmental,” said Lacorazza, whose two children visit the farm often.
“I give Liz the credit. She’s taking it upon herself to care for these children, and it’s a 24-hour job,” said Lacorazza, whose 10-year-old daughter Bridget has shaken-baby syndrome and is legally blind in one eye. “She’s always happy when she goes there.”
Showing horses at the fair, Lacorazza said, is a highlight.
“It shows them they can have accomplishments to be proud of.”
Hengesbach is proud, too.
“This should be a positive memory that they can carry with them always.”
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