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Confidence Builders

Therapy Program Links Disabled, Donkeys at Cornish Fair

  • Stella Coulter-Duling. Stella, 9, guides her personal donkey, Pepper,, with the Road to Independence program, at the Cornish Fair Sunday. Courtesy photo.

    Stella Coulter-Duling. Stella, 9, guides her personal donkey, Pepper,, with the Road to Independence program, at the Cornish Fair Sunday. Courtesy photo.

  • This aerial shot, taken from a helicopter, shows the Cornish Fair in Cornish N.H. on August 18, 2013. Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage

    This aerial shot, taken from a helicopter, shows the Cornish Fair in Cornish N.H. on August 18, 2013. Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage

  • Stella Coulter-Duling. Stella, 9, guides her personal donkey, Pepper,, with the Road to Independence program, at the Cornish Fair Sunday. Courtesy photo.
  • This aerial shot, taken from a helicopter, shows the Cornish Fair in Cornish N.H. on August 18, 2013. Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage

Cornish — In a corner of the Cornish Fairgrounds, far from the rides and carnival games, the 4-H showings and the tent full of rabbits, several people slowly circled a grassy ring, each guiding their own donkey.

They were showing the animals as part of Road to Independence, Inc., a Newport-based nonprofit that teaches developmentally disabled adults to work on a farm, as well as with the donkeys, which they then show at public events like this weekend’s Cornish Fair.

“For a lot of our folks, they don’t have control over much in their life,” said Margaret Coulter, the organization’s president. “For some, it’s the first time they’ve been in charge of something.”

The program itself takes place in Goshen, N.H., at Chakola’s Place, which is owned and operated by Penny de Peyer, who also owns the donkeys.

Right now, said Coulter, who lives in Newport, the 3-year-old nonprofit has worked with nine people, all of whom are in their 20s or older.

One of them is her brother, Richard Coulter, 49, who yesterday showed the donkey he works with, Nutmeg, to a crowd of about 30 that watched at the ring’s wooden fence. In a basket caddie on Nutmeg’s back, a teddy bear dressed up as Spider-Man — named Spider-Bear — rode along.

“It gives me good luck,” said Richard Coulter, who has been working with donkeys for seven years.

While he walked around the ring, so did his niece, Stella Coulter-Duling. Stella, 9, was guiding her personal donkey, Pepper. When she was little, she used to ride in the caddie that how holds Spider-Bear, which she made for her uncle. At one point she stopped by the fence, near AnaMaria Whittier, of Sunapee, to talk shop.

“In the winter she gets ice crystals in her whiskers and she looks so sad,” Whittier said at one point, discussing the animal she had brought home several months earlier.

Though Whittier is not directly affiliated with Road to Independence, she said she is familiar with its mission, and appreciated the sense of accomplishment it gives to adults who don’t often have such an opportunity.

“Who doesn’t want that, right?” she said.

Besides working with donkeys on the farm, Road to Independence, which operates with a four-person, all-volunteer core staff, offers its participants the opportunity to work with plants and vegetables they sell at local farmers markets.

For instance, Coulter said that Road to Independence attends the Rochester, Vt., Harvest Fair and the Newport Winter Carnival, as well as the Save Your Ass Donkey & Mule Benefit Show in Alstead, N.H.

According to Coulter, the stereotypical donkey stubbornness is actually more cautiousness, which is why the animal is a good one for the developmentally disabled. Horses, on the other hand, are more prone to sudden movement and flightiness.

“They’re more apt to stop and freeze than they are to run,” she said of the donkeys.

Both Coulter and de Peyer said that all of those factors have led to positive changes among the individuals who visit the Goshen farm.

One woman, de Peyer said, was initially too terrified to even go into the barn with the donkeys. After a couple of years, she is now able to overcome her anxiety to the point where she can brush the animals.

Small things that many people take for granted, Coulter said, have to be taught, step-by-step, to many of the people who work with Road to Independence. But she said the changes they’ve seen over the past few years have been great.

“Put it this way,” de Peyer joked. “We have one guy that came to us, never said a word. Now you can’t shut him up.”

Jon Wolper can be reached at jwolper@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.