SOUL Harbour Ranch founder Jodie Diegel and her loyal volunteers spread the love throughout Barrington and beyond.
A teenage girl should be out spending her summer with her friends at the pool. She should be cruising through town with her best friend. She should be making plans to coincidentally run into that cute boy she noticed last night.
She should not find herself hooked up to a monitor in the hospital.
But there she is, pale and walking slowly int a room in the children’s department of Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge on this otherwise sunny day. Behind her stands her parents, looking tired and worried and confused about why it is that their child is here.
“C’mon in,” a gentle yet enthusiastic voice rings through the otherwise quiet room. “You need to meet Mystery. Can you believe his little pink Teddy Mountain gym shoes?”
The timid young woman sits down next to Mystery, a mini therapy horse from SOUL Harbour Ranch in Barrington, who is in fact wearing pink bedazzled gym shoes on her hooves. She pets the top of Mystery’s head, gives the attentive horse a little hug and then asks for her phone so she can Snapchat a selfie of her with the miniature horse.
And then, she smiles.
And then, so does Jodie Diegel.
“Oh this is a passion for me,” Diegel says in a hushed tone.
“Every visit is very different. Some are fun. Some are emotional. But I’m my truest self when I am sharing my animals with those who need them. My dream has always been to connect people with my therapy animals.”
As founder of the SOUL Harbour Ranch and its animal therapy program, Diegel finds herself changing the lives of others on a daily basis. Working under the mission “To enrich lives by promoting the unconditional love and healing of the human-animal bond while advocating for animal therapy stan- dards of excellence,” SOUL Harbour Ranch Animal Therapy Program is a 501(c)3 nonprofit that calls Barrington home.
Since its official beginnings in 2013, Diegel and her loyal group of specially trained volunteers have traveled throughout the Chicago area, bringing their legion of comfort-providing animals to organizations such as JourneyCare, Mercy Home for Boys & Girls and various hospitals in the city and suburbs.
“I’ve cried at so many bedsides,” admits Diegel, a self-pro- claimed animal lover who grew up in Arlington Heights. “You walk in and the patient is usually hooked up to IVs and life vests, and yes, those visits are usually very quiet. The visit is all about the one on one connection between the animal and the patient. Then, you just watch and see the moment play out.”
One of her recent forms of outreach is via her work with the SOUL Buddies Animal Therapy Club at Barrington High School. It offers students the chance to work with mentors and therapy animals from SOUL Harbour Ranch to learn how to become registered handlers, and eventually, head out into the Barrington community on therapy visits.
“Here we have these special animals, so we are constantly looking for more ways in which we can have them engage with people of all ages in all locations,” says Diegel a former registered nurse who moved to Barrington in 2016.
“I am amazed at the outpouring of love and support from Barrington,” adds Diegel, who plans to add miniature donkeys to her trained group of therapy animals in the near future. “Barrington has long been known for embracing nonprofits like ours, but peoples’ interest in what we are doing has been nothing short of spectacular. It’s all about building partner- ships that can continue to grow.”
And while her calendar is increasingly filled with more places and events in which people need the services of her very special therapy animals, Diegel says she is trying her best to take things one at a time.
“If I have learned anything, I have learned that life is a journey and you never know the changes that await you around every corner,” says Diegel, who also works full-time for a downtown law firm. “I have also learned that everything hap- pens for a reason. We have been able to take SOUL Harbour Ranch in a direction that proves that this is about so much more than a few therapy horses.”
She plans to spend the coming years enjoying every moment that these amazing animals give her.
“It’s very special to come home from a visit and have them here with me,” she says of the animals that live on her 5-acre SOUL Harbour Ranch in Barrington, a place she says she hopes to open to the public very soon. “At the end of the day, my husband and I, along with the help of so many volunteers, feed them and care for them and love them, just as much as they have loved others. They are a part of all of our hearts.”