Sunnyvale farm bringing happiness and smiles through animal therapy

SUNNYVALE, Calif. (KGO) -- Vicki Amon-Higa and Peter Higa are Building a Better Bay Area in Sunnyvale, California.,

They have brought happiness and smiles to children across the area thanks to their Animal Assisted Happiness (AAH) program.

The program has been running for the past 10 years and not one child has had to pay for its services because everything is exclusively paid for by donations and grants.

"It's a place for kids with need to interact with animals and find happiness," Amon-Higa said. "We do not charge for any of our services. There is never a question of whether or not someone can afford that therapy for their child. Anybody can afford animal assisted happiness because it's all free of charge."

There are many different ways that AAH gives back to their community and offers therapy.

Children can visit the farm for personal time with the animals or take part in the vocational education around the farm to learn skills.

AAH is also mobile with their Barnyard Buddies program that visits local schools including Mountain View High School.

It has been a benefit to Seamus Quillinan and his special education students for years.

"The animals have this magical ability to calm my students and to make them feel comfortable," Quillinan said. "That's a magical thing. My students get to learn how to work. They get to learn how to do a real vocational skill. They get to be connected with their community members and just like the name of the organization, Animal Assisted Happiness, it really does bring them happiness and joy."

None of this could be possible without the inspiration of a very special member of the AAH family.

Her name is Lollipop.

"Our daughter's riding instructor asked to borrow Lollipop, our miniature horse, to go see a little girl who was losing the battle with cancer," Amon-Higa said. "Lollipop went up the front steps and into the house and stayed with Riley, who was in a wheelchair at that point, for about 90 minutes. That was truly our inspiration that we had to do more with the animals that we had for our four kids in our backyard in Los Altos for other kids."

Since that time, more than 50,000 children have seen the benefits of Animal Assisted Happiness thanks to the Higa's and the dozens of animals on the farm.

The animals are used primarily for the therapy because of the ways that they are different from people as well as the impact they provide to the children who are around them.

"The animals just don't judge," AAH Program Manager Simone Haroush said. "They don't care what color you are, what you look like or how you hold them, as long as they're gentle."

In 2017, the City of Sunnyvale welcomed AAH to their new "Smile Farm" facility at Baylands Park.

Nestled in the heart of Silicon Valley, it's unusual to see a farm in the city.

But this program is something that Sunnyvale and Mayor Larry Klein has been happy to get behind.

"Animal Assisted Happiness has been fantastic," Klein said. "They've been great neighbors to other nonprofits. They've also done great outreach to our school. They're really building a better environment."

In just 10 years, the Higa Family have brought thousands of smiles to the Bay Area through Animal Assisted Happiness.

With more plans to expand and grow, the smiles are sure to continue in the years to come.

"We have a lot of diversity in the Bay Area and this helps bring us together," Higa said. "It's not just about the typical families and kids, but we need to bring children with need into the equation."

"It's important to Build a Better Bay Area through Animal Assisted Happiness and our animal therapy programs because as a parent of four raising children in the Silicon Valley, there is plenty of time behind computers and inside classrooms," Amon-Higa said" The opportunity to get outside and experience the smiles that animals can bring, especially when you consider making it more of an inclusionary environment, is great. You can't take that away from kids. Once they experience this, they're going to want more. Our hope is that they are going to want more and that the world is going to be a better place because of it."

For more information on Animal Assisted Happiness, visit their website.
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