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Farm sanctuary for animals, humans on the brink of closure

NOKESVILLE, Va. (AP) — Nestled amid sprawling fields in northern Virginia lies an oasis of healing.

Jackson, a horse once confined to a stall with a broken hip, trots again through grassy fields. Wilbur, earlier chased in a greased pig contest, sits near a mud pit waiting for a treat.

And Alyssa Conrad, a Virginia woman born without ligaments or tendons in her legs, can feel her body grow stronger after long days of tending to the barn. She now sweeps hay and scrapes sties without fear of her knees buckling.

If it sounds too good to be true, it just might be.

Hope & Serenity Farm Sanctuary, which houses more than 140 vulnerable animals and provides comfort for dozens of people with disabilities, is at risk of closure.

Without warning, its rented property in Prince William County was listed for sale in early August — throwing a wrench into the farmers’ plans to purchase the 11-acre plot once their lease expires in 2024.

Without money for the down payment and an investor to help down the line, Renee Small, the farm’s founder, may lose the property to another buyer less accommodating to the farm.

“I was sick,” said Small, recalling that afternoon when her property manager showed up to deliver the news. “My plan was to live here forever, to have roots.”

But there are glimmers of hope.

Over the past three weeks, Small and her business partners have launched an aggressive public campaign to save their farm. Through word of mouth and a GoFundMe page, she has brought in over $25,000 in donations — more than a quarter of what she needs for a down payment.

“I am not going to move,” Small said, sitting at a picnic table with a puppy burrowed in her lap. “I will find a way for us all to stay together. I just will.”

“They’re going to have to drag her out of here,” said Joe Small, Renee’s husband, who co-manages the farm that has been around since 2017.

The landlord, who Renee Small said used to be her business partner, declined to comment, but a spokeswoman said she hopes the sanctuary can remain on the property.

“She would love for the tenants to be able to purchase the property themselves or an investor purchase so that the tenants can continue their sanctuary operation,” Kara Joseph, a Realtor at RE/MAX Regency, said on behalf of the landlord.

The 11 acres in Nokesville, about an hour’s drive west of the District, that surround the Smalls’ modest white house bear the fruits of their lifelong dream.

Dozens of goats roam in one area, a cow rests in another, and the smell of horses and fresh hay wafts out of the white and red barn. A steady stream of volunteers and visitors flows in throughout the day, some washing horses and others, mostly children, giggling while petting pigs.

It had taken decades to get to this point. During her 30-year career as a veterinary technician at Great Falls Animal Hospital, Renee Small became known as the “animal rescuer.”

People from across the state would email, call and show up at her office door with sick or aging animals, begging her to save their lives. And she did, at one point tending to more than two dozen potbelly pigs in her backyard.

“They are overpopulated,” she explained. “What else was I going to do?”

Over the years, Small grew devoted to the unofficial animal sanctuary operating out of her house, finally quitting her job and transforming it into a bona fide operation three years ago. Her husband also left his job in heating and air conditioning, determined to invest everything he had into the farm.

“We figured there is more to life than just doing menial jobs,” Joe Small said. “We’ve always been poor, but relatively rich in care and love for the animals.”

The couple secured the Nokesville property just over a year later and hauled around 150 of their beloved animals to what they hoped would become a permanent home.

“I don’t know if I could survive losing this farm,” Renee Small said. “It would be like losing a child.”

It was not just the animals who relied on the safe space. Over the years, dozens of home-schooled children and people with disabilities have found company and purpose at the farm.

The Smalls have partnered with Patriot High School to offer job training to students with special needs. And they have formed a working relationship with Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board, which provides services to youths and adults with developmental disabilities. A handful of adults with disabilities have become regular volunteers, two of whom live and work full time at the farm.

“When I am having a bad day, I come to the farm, and it makes me happy,” said Conrad, a 23-year-old graduate of Patriot High School, as she poured water over her favorite horse, Jackson. “Coming to the farm here has been a miracle for me. I can’t lose it.”

Brandon Small, Renee and Joe’s 15-year-old son, said the sanctuary has provided him a group of like-minded friends who also find joy at the farm — peers he might not have interacted with while being home-schooled.

“I get angry really easily, but I don’t get as angry here,” said Brandon, whose favorite animals are chickens, cats and ducks.

Each evening, he brings horses in from the pasture before completing his daily chores around the house.

The unlikely family that formed around the Hope & Serenity Farm Sanctuary has rallied in its defense, vowing to save the farm like Renee Small saved them.

While the Smalls ask for voluntary donations from visitors, many have doled out significant sums in recent weeks. They have also activated their own communities to help the Smalls finance a down payment, hoping that they can help buy time for an investor to emerge and purchase the property.

“We are talking to several people who are interested in investing in the property, myself being one of them,” said Stephanie Johnson, a member of the farm’s board of directors. “Right now, we are just trying to keep it afloat.”

On a cloudy afternoon in August, Robin and Rachel Thompson, 5-year-old twins, pushed their mom on an outdoor swing as she leaned back and laughed.

“I want to adopt this place,” said Connie Thompson, watching Rachel scamper off in her bright blue boots to pet a kitten. “A lot of people talk about the hidden gifts of the coronavirus, that people are slowing down and spending more time with their families. Being here allows us to do that.”

While financial hardship looms, the farm has never been more popular than over the past few months. All visitor slots are booked through September.

“Renee really sees the best in people and trusts them to do their best,” Thompson said. “We need that right now.”

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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