Barrington High School senior Ilaria Tuluce has always loved animals, has always dreamed of becoming a veterinarian, and has always appreciated the joy that comes with being around happy people. So when the SOUL Buddies Animal Therapy Club began at her school, she knew she was meant to get involved.
“This club was the perfect fit right from the start,” explains Tuluce, who joined the SOUL Buddies club when it officially came to BHS back in the fall of 2018. “When I see people smile when they are around the animals, it always pulls at the heartstrings because you know you are making a difference in their lives.”
Led by Jodie Diegel, founder and president of SOUL Harbour Ranch Animal Therapy Program, alongside club sponsor Dr. Heath McFaul and a host of SOUL volunteers, the SOUL Buddies club at BHS is just one of the many animal therapy programs at SOUL Harbor Ranch. Its Barrington-based facility houses one of the area’s most experienced and comprehensive animal therapy programs, including registered miniature therapy horses, therapy dogs, and miniature donkeys.
“We wanted to get more students in the Barrington community involved in animal handling,” explains Diegel when asked about how the club started. “We didn’t have many high school students volunteering with us, so I thought creating this new club at the high school would enable students to get involved while also connecting with our animals and visiting others in our community. We are grateful to BHS Assistant Principal Dr. McFaul and the high school for advocating for this club. We are all about our mission of enriching lives by promoting the unconditional love and healing of the human-animal bond.
“It’s really about helping students become more confident through animal handling that, in turn, will give them more confidence overall in life,” explains Diegel. “The students not only have to learn to handle the animals, but they have to learn to help those animals connect to people. It teaches them respect and selflessness and the beauty of giving back.”
Diegel says that many of the students that are drawn to the club are rather shy at their core. Yet, the animals allow that shyness to subside for a little while.
“We encourage the students to always speak up, no matter the situation,” explains Diegel. “Sometimes its as simple as introducing yourself and telling someone about their animal. Soon, the communication doesn’t seem strained at all. It’s just comfortable.”
The club is held weekly throughout the year, including summer. Twice a month, a group of SOUL Harbour Ranch’s therapy dogs find their way to the hallways of BHS, eager to spend some time with the young people.
“The students just gravitate to our animals,” explains Diegel, who has also worked with students who have brought in their own dogs to be trained as therapy dogs. “From the athletes to the cheerleaders to Barrington Buddies, these students all gather in the hallways together to see our therapy dogs.”
Training sessions are also held at SOUL Harbour Ranch so the students can learn to handle the miniature therapy horses and mini donkeys.
And then on the first Thursday of every month, the SOUL Buddies students travel to various community locations such as The Garlands, JourneyCare, Sunrise, and Alden Estates of Barrington, and partners with The Barrington Transition Program, to visit and bring the healing power of the animals to some of the people who need it the most.
“The Barrington area community has been so very welcoming when it comes to allowing these students to visit and learn to handle our registered therapy animals,” says Diegel. She welcomes Barrington area residents with well-mannered dogs to become registered therapy dogs and join their team.
Indeed, Diegel says she hopes that many members of the current SOUL Buddies club remain as volunteers at SOUL Harbour Ranch long after the high school days are through.
Ilaria Tuluce plans to be one of those people. “After high school, I do plan to still volunteer at Soul Harbor Ranch so that I can still be close to Jodie,” she admits. “She is the person who inspired me to believe in myself and inspired me to have faith when things go upside down.”
She pauses, and then she smiles. “I also don’t think I’m ready to leave the animals just yet.”
For more information, visit soulharbourranch.com.