On a June afternoon at Sunnyvale’s Animal Assisted Happiness (AAH) Smile Farm, volunteer trainees immersed themselves in a two-and-a-half acre farm at the heart of Silicon Valley. Sights included doves inside an aviary, horses, pigs, goats, sheep, rabbits and chickens. Villages were set up for the chickens, guinea pigs, rabbits and ducks. Imagine the wonder a child might experience coming here.
“Our vision is to create a million smiles for youth with needs, and we created over 53,000 smiles to date, roughly 8,000 smiles per year since we started this program in 2009,” said Vicki Amon-Higa, who co-founded AAH with her husband, Peter Higa. “We provide mobile barnyard visits to 90 schools, programs and hospitals for youth with needs. We also provide private visits and vocational education programs at the Smile Farm.”
All of AAH’s services, programs, school visits and private visits are free of charge for youth with needs. This 501(c)(3) non-profit organization fundraises and accepts donations to cover the costs of its programs.
Amon-Higa explained that AAH was founded in her and Higa’s former Los Altos home, where they had an acre of farm with barnyard animals in their yard. Today, the animals belong to AAH. The City of Sunnyvale leases the farm’s land.
“AAH happened because our daughter’s riding instructor borrowed Lollipop, our miniature horse, to go see a little girl named Riley who had brain cancer,” Amon-Higa said. “Lollipop visited Riley in San Carlos. Riley is our angel and Lollipop is our inspiration. In 2009, we established AAH to help kids with needs through barnyard animal interactions. We started in Los Altos Hills and we moved our farm to Gilroy. In 2015, we moved our farm to Sunnyvale, while working with the City of Sunnyvale to find the best location for AAH. It opened in November of 2017.”
Amon-Higa explained that AAH offers a robust youth volunteer program for 6th to 12th grade students and an adult volunteer program. The organization has over 3,200 registered volunteers, 70 percent of which are 6th to 12th grade students.
Katina, a parent, has observed the benefits of working around animals through the experience of her 17-year-old son, who has been volunteering at AAH since last September.
“Our older son has a lot of love for animals and we thought this would be an appropriate match for him,” Katina said. “He is on the spectrum and he also has anxiety. Being out in nature and being with animals has always been very calming for him. I have seen a steady increase in his confidence. As he has shown himself to be capable, he has been given more responsibilities. He is more confident showing other people what to do. He is showing some leadership skills now. He sets his own goals now. He always leaves AAH very happy and content.”
The AAH Smile Farm is located at Sunnyvale’s Baylands Park at 999 E. Caribbean Dr. Visit www.animalassistedhappiness.org for more information about AAH.