A spontaneous farm visit led to a major lifestyle change—and sparked a passion for volunteering in my kids.

By Marisa Cohen
Updated December 08, 2017
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Illustration: family helping animals in barn
Credit: Jasu Hu

Earlier this year, my teenage daughters—city kids whose typical experience with the great out-doors involves watching pigeons fight over a hot dog bun on a concrete sidewalk—found themselves knee-deep in horse poop and hay as they mucked out a barn at the Woodstock Farm Sanctuary in High Falls, New York, home to hundreds of animals that had been rescued from abuse and neglect. The girls couldn’t be happier to be there.

They were just 7 and 9 when we first visited the sanctuary seven years ago. We drove past it one weekend and decided to stop in to visit the animals. We saw firsthand how affectionate the cows, pigs, and sheep were; many of them would have been put down because of physical imperfections but were now thriving. We talked to staff members about the environmental and health effects of raising cattle and eating meat, and we all decided to try going veggie, just for a week, to see how it felt.

Within a month, we realized we didn’t miss meat at all, and ever since, our family has been vegetarian. Since then, we’ve donated money to the farm sanctuary, and the girls have raised funds for no-kill animal shelters in our city. But I always wanted to do more. I also felt it was import-ant for my kids to see that giving back doesn’t just mean writing a check but giving your sweat and labor to something you believe in.

So as soon as the girls were old enough, we joined a group of a dozen volunteers at the farm for the day to clean out the horse barn. This involved shoveling dirty hay into garbage cans, hauling them outside, and dumping them into the back of a pickup truck.It was backbreaking work, but the girls dug their shovels into the hay with gusto. Once the floor was cleared, we had the much more fun task of tearing paper off fresh bales and spreading the hay across the barn by kicking it like we were in a chorus line. Finally, after a full day of work, our jeans and boots covered with muck, our hair frizzing into the stratosphere, and our faces dripping with sweat, we were given a special tour of all the animals, including an adorable little family of piglets that had just been rescued from someone who had left them starving in his yard.

“This weekend was really fun,” said my oldest daughter. “It was great to spend time helping the animals instead of just looking at cute pictures of them online.”

Ways to Volunteer With Animals

  1. Have an elderly neighbor with a pet? Kids can help walk her dog; you can drive her cat to the vet.
  2. Local shelters can often use an extra hand to play with the animals to help socialize them. Find potential places to volunteer at petfinder.com (click on “Shelters & Rescues”).
  3. Find a rescue center where you may be able to help out; consult the list at vegan.com/farm-sanctuaries.