With a combination of grit and determination, a little bit of luck and a lot of love, Jodie Diegel, founder of Soul Harbour Ranch Therapy Program, is literally living her dream life. She has created an organization that uses therapy dogs, miniature therapy horses and miniature therapy donkeys to share a lot of SOUL (Sharing Of Unconditional Love) throughout Barrington and nearby communities.
“I’m a very positive person. I know that my mission, my purpose in life, as a nurse and as a giver, is to help others through animals,” Diegel says.
In addition to being the founder and president of Soul Harbour Ranch, Diegel is also a registered nurse and legal nurse consultant with Kaveny + Kroll in Chicago. Diegel says that a difference is made when there is a soul-to-soul connection between humans and animals. She laughs while noting that her husband Jerry “is not really a horse person.” She credits him for the wok that he does at SOUL Harbour Ranch and his advocacy for her passion. “He sees the magic our animals bring to those we visit.”
“People often ask, ‘What is a visit and what do therapy animals do?’” Diegel’s reply: “At every visit, when others meet our special animals, there is joy, laughter, smiles, and sharing of unconditional love…that is true healing.”
All of the visiting animal teams are registered through the national therapy animal organization called Pet Partners. “They’re really the gold standard,” Diegel says. “We are Barrington’s most experienced and comprehensive animal therapy program. What that means is that many of our handlers have been working with our animals since 2012. We have grown to 35 registered handlers with a total of 85 registered therapy animal teams.
“The inspiration for SOUL started with my dog, Buffet, in 2010. We volunteered at Northwest Community Hospital’s wonderful AAT (Animal Assisted Therapy) program, along with my second therapy dog, Dudley,” says Diegel. “I bought three miniature horses in 2012. And we’ve continued to grow. We have about 50 volunteers.”
Before the pandemic, their registered therapy teams visit nursing homes, hospitals, schools, veteran facilities and more. “We have started many programs including the SOUL Buddies Animal Therapy Club, which is a recognized club at Barrington High School. We mentor the Barrington High School students on a weekly basis to become registered animal handlers. We also kicked off the SOUL Veterans Animal Therapy Troops in September, thanks to a grant from BACF (Barrington Area Community Foundation).”
What’s quite impressive is that even during the pandemic, they have been able to pivot and provide virtual visits to all of the places they normally would have gone to in person. They added an ongoing weekly “Friday Facebook Live at 5” segment so everyone can enjoy their therapy animals. “I even FaceTimed with a young girl in her hospital bed who finally took her medicine after ‘meeting’ our herd.”
SOUL Harbour Ranch is a nonprofit, registered 501(c )(3) organization and is supported solely through personal donations, grants and sponsorships.
Watching the animals, volunteers, and clients interact is beyond moving. It feels nearly impossible to capture in words the look of joy, delight, and amazement on patients’ faces as they watch these gentle creatures amble down the hallways of Loyola Medical Center or Barrington High School. Truly priceless.
For more information, visit soulharbourranch.com.