My Trauma Story: Unedited


by Savanah McCarty as told to Rebel Heart Poetry (@rebelheartpoetry)



Secrecy feeds shame. Brenè Brown once said, “If you put shame in a petri dish and you give it a little bit of silence and a little bit of judgement and a little bit of secrecy it will grow exponentially into every corner and crevice of your life. If you have the same amount of shame in a petri dish and you put a little empathy on it, you’ve created a hostile environment for shame.”


Shame is a tricky little concept and because of it we, humans that is, tend to keep our past to ourselves, tucked quietly away deep in our hearts, brains, and souls. It’s a nice thought, to believe if we don’t talk about something that it just might leave us alone, but anyone who has gone through any sort of trauma or has been a victim of any sort of abuse knows that tucking the past away is haunting. It rears its head in many ways- depression, anxiety, addiction, detrimental life choice patterns, ect.


Personally, I am a work in progress, like one of those pull-tab cans of fruit, I’m halfway open, not quite ready to let it all out. I write about my feelings, but I do so under an alias (hence the “rebel heart poetry”). It’s not only the fear of shame that stops me from talking about the less than sparkly parts of my past, it is the fear of trauma judgement.


What is trauma judgement? Trauma Judgement is what people do when they hear another person’s story. It ranges from the well-meaning words of attempted comfort such as “oh my goodness, you’re so strong, I could never survive that” or “well, everything happens for a reason” (the worst) to a decision that another’s trauma isn’t worthy of the damage it has caused to them i.e. “her story isn’t that bad, she’s dramatic” or “who hasn’t been through something like that?”


Social media has created the Supreme Court of Trauma Judgment, an open platform to share, read, critique, analyze, and dissect stories of trauma.  I dream of a world where social media accounts are attained much like a license, requiring both an IQ and an empathy test before allowing a person the ability to comment.


However, here in the real world 2019, that is not the case. Any dope off the street can practice armchair psychology and declare another person crazy or decide that another person is a delusional liar, just based off a hunch.


Here’s the thing, my trauma and my story are not up for your third-party interpretation. Your trauma and your story, also are not up for third-party interpretation.  Trauma is not a science. Trauma is a multi-faceted experience and only the person who went through it is allowed the right to deem how it affected their life.


Trauma is not one-size fits all. Resiliency comes in all shapes and sizes and relativity plays a part in every story. For one person, an absent father may lead to a lifetime of poor dating choices and a constant quest to find self-worth in the eyes of a man but for another, it may be something they are able to process and work through, unaffected. A messy divorce might be a stressful year to one, but the last straw to a person who has faced multiple abandonments. Other people don’t get to decide if a date rape or a childhood inappropriate touch is “enough” to be considered trauma. Trauma judgment is never appropriate.


Trauma has many chapters. When a person shares with you their story, keep in mind, there may be, and likely is, a darker chapter being left out.  Trauma victims are fierce protectors, sometimes omitting part of their story to spare another. Opening up about occurrences that make a person feel “damaged” is terrifying. Trauma survivors have earned the right to share none, part, or all of their experience. They owe us nothing.


Yet some choose to speak up and share their story, nonetheless. Why? The reasons are multiple, from a need to break the metaphoric chains of an abusive family construct to a knowledge that speaking truth heals, but most people share their stories of trauma, abuse, and overcoming because they believe it might make a difference in the life of another


I ask that you consider the following as you read the story of Savanah, founder and Director of Wild Souls Ranch, as told to the writer.


I don’t name names when I tell my story. Each person in my life has their own story to tell and I wouldn’t dare do that for them. I will forever encourage each person I encounter, including those who were part of my story, to open up and share. Only by lifting up the rug and revealing what has been swept under it for generations, can families begin to heal.


This isn’t the first time I have sat down and shared my life story with someone though, this is the first time I am ready to share details of my childhood I have otherwise kept to myself. I’m not sure if I’m doing so because I am ready or because I feel forced to defend myself after a recent online smear campaign attempting to shame me for claiming the childhood trauma I endured was falsified, but, either way, it’s time.


Savanah recently was shown a Facebook post by a family that cared for her in her teens and early twenties claiming that she had falsified her childhood trauma, threating the validity of her motivation to find and establish Wild Souls Ranch. The posts claimed she dramatized her childhood trauma and was never in the foster care system, a technicality Savanah has never claimed, always identifying as a “ward of the court.”


The people who posted on social media claiming my childhood story is false weren’t present for my childhood. I suppose they feel like they know my whole story because they were a part of my teen and early-adulthood but, they only know what they were told. They don’t actually know my story. 


Before reading any further, please be advised there are trigger warnings in Savanah’s story.


I have no idea who my father is. Does that feel great? No, but it would turn out to be the least of my worries. Before my biological mom was sentenced to prison, I lived with her. I remember domestic violence and addiction like other people recall bubble baths and bedtime stories. It was hell but it was all I knew. To me, early childhood was screaming, yelling, nightly fights and alcoholism. I had never seen any different.


When I was five-years-old, my bio-mom took me and ran, leaving my then stepfather with his two kids and a bankruptcy to deal with. I don’t remember much from this time but I know that no one in my extended knew where I was for months.


Somewhere between age five and six I was dumped off at the home of the people I knew as “grandpa” and “grandma,” the couple who had adopted my bio-mom as a child.  The woman I knew as grandma was healing from her own family trauma, battling depression, addicted to pills, often spending days on end in bed but my grandpa, he was the one to introduce me to what it felt like to be loved.


Grandpa and I were thick as thieves. For this man, I keep using the last name “McCarty.” He is the one who looked at a small, freckle-faced girl who believed love was just impossible to earn, viewed pills as grown up treats, and thought that screaming and hitting were normal ways of communicating and saw that she needed help. He realized that I had already been exposed to the family pattern of brokenness and he decided if he couldn’t help me, he at least wanted to introduce me to someone who could.


My grandfather introduced me to the woman that would change my life, the woman who introduced me to horses.  Every day after school and near every weekend, my grandfather drove me Marlene’s ranch where I would meet freedom for the first time, where I would feel a wild love only horses can give. Marlene and her horses saved my spirit and my grandfather is the one who knew they would.


In and out of my world, my bio-mom eventually went to prison which made me, still very much a child, a ward of the state. The state placed me under NFRM guardianship with my grandparents. For a long time, I was told, and believed, that my mom was getting better and we would be reunited. No matter what you have been through or how tough of a kid you are, a child always fills with hope for their mama.


There is something the courts call a “reunification process,” a court date for separated families where the child and parent are both scheduled to show up, meet and make a plan to live together again. I had several of these scheduled in my childhood. I showed up to every single one, smiling, hopeful, ready to hug my mom. She never showed. Not once. You want to talk about crushing childhood moments? I can remember the way that court room felt, the temperature, the smell, my sweaty palms, the feeling of trying not to hope but unable to stop myself from believing this day would be different than the ones before.


Eventually, I resigned and accepted that I was never going to be a daughter, never going to get my hair braided and watch sitcoms while sitting on the couch with my mom. I would live with my grandparents and as long as my grandpa was there to shield me from my grandma’s darkness, that would be good enough for me. I was loved.


Right about the time I relaxed into believing I was home, my grandpa was diagnosed with the early stages of cancer.


Have you ever met someone who seems unable to believe good things can happen to them? It might be because of never-ending crushing losses like this. Sure, on paper, a child facing a grandfather’s cancer diagnosis is sad, but not life crushing. However, when you consider that said child had been abandoned by every other family member since birth, the brevity of the situation changes. Remember, this is why there is no judge, no jury, when it comes to trauma.


It was decided that in order for my grandpa to fight cancer, he couldn’t also be the main caretaker for a little girl. At age 12, near after finding out the only man I called family was facing a deadly disease, I was told to pack my bags and that I would be moving to Colorado to live on an air force base with a woman I had known as an aunt and her husband, and I was told they were expecting their first baby.


I was worried about leaving my grandpa, terrified I would never see him again. I was heartbroken to leave behind my daily routine of riding and caring for horses with Marlene, the first female figure to make me feel somewhat adored.  All that aside, as resilient home bouncing kids often are, I remained positive, telling myself that this could be the beginning of what I had always wanted, a real family.


My aunt and uncle were young. They didn’t seem to have dark habits or skeletons buried in the closet. They seemed happy and I so desperately wanted that, happy and normal. I would have taken a happy and normal family over anything else you could offer me.


I could hardly believe I was part of this nuclear, picket fence bliss. Pre-teen years in full affect, I decided to, once again, let go and let myself be happy. I had a family. I was part of family. It was settled. I was home.


I was happy but I was still a near teenager who had been spent her whole life around various forms of drugs, depression, addiction, and untreated trauma. Where I found my aunt and uncle comforting, they found me difficult to parent and, to their credit, I probably was, compared to the children of their military friends.


Right before I turned 14, they had decided I wasn’t a good fit for their little family and, once again, my bags were packed and I was told there was a better fitting place for me. This time, me and my bright blue duffle bag were dropped off at home that felt so strange to me, even though it was drilled into my head that it was a home with a family connection, a savior from a foster home which I was to be ever so grateful for.


I moved into to the same house as my half-siblings, my mom’s other kids. The head of household was their birth dad, his new wife, her child from a previous marriage, and their shared child together. Five children altogether, if you counted me.

I had spent little time with my half-siblings and their dad on a few occasions after we had been separated, a camping trip here, a passing through road trip there, but I had zero relationship with the parents of this household as a 13-year-old.


So, there I was. A teenager who had been told, in words and other ways, that she was not wanted, too much trouble, or a bad fit in every other home I had ever called home. I was very aware that I was to be in a constant state of gratitude towards their act of taking me in. I was terrified to let my guard down, to be anything but a quiet and helpful existence, rather than, God forbid, a typical a teenager.


It wasn’t their fault but it was to be expected, I was terrified.


I lived with this family for near four years and I will be the first to tell you that there were absolutely moments of happiness. In those four years, a few authentic smiles spread across my face and, in spite of it all, there were moments of laughter too. I did my part. My grades were good, I signed up for every sport I could, I held down multiple after school jobs.


Though I would like to say I did all of those things because of my innate desire to achieve and excel, that would be a lie. I had zero confidence of any sorts. The motivation behind my accomplishments was to prove my worth, make this family proud, fool them into believing I, the little girl who no one wanted, was worthy of a bedroom in their home and maybe a place in their heart.


Though it was nothing compared to the homes of my past, so much so that I believed it to be a healthy home, the house I lived in from ages 14-18 was stocked full of addiction, dysfunction, and nightly screaming and fighting. I had no control. I couldn’t speak up; I couldn’t make waves. The girl who couldn’t even get her mom to want her, who was once living in seedy motels, who didn’t even know her dad’s name, that girl, in my mind, had no right to complain about a little bit of emotional abuse and some addiction exposure.


I mean, when you’ve lived in a world of abuse as the norm and watched your mom passed out on a couch, waiting to see if she was just in a pill haze, drunk or dead, it hardly seems worth mentioning that your half-sibling’s step-mom ,who everyone else praised for taking you in, would often send you to your room, give you the silent treatment, a very extreme solitary confinement version of what your same-aged friends called “being grounded.”


Isolation is not a recommended form of punishment for children of trauma.


So, I did what many teenage girls who had less than ideal childhoods do. I took on an eating disorder because that, that I could control. I learned to love the isolation, forcing myself to view my punishment of having to spend the entirety of a month completely alone in my room as a gift in disguise. I would read books, escaping to a world of whatever the author created for me.


When the screaming and fighting down the hall would grow to be too much, I would put on my headphones. I would listen to the music and cry, wishing, willing, praying that a social worker or my previous Casa Advocate, Dottie, would come and rescue me. Just one home visit, I would pray, just one.


I would pray to be put with another family, one who wanted a foster kid and didn’t “have to take me in.” I would dream of being sent to a group home, a place where all the kids were as messed up and unwanted as me, but maybe there would be a therapist who understood us and could help us.


But that never happened. Just as the recent social media post said, I, Savanah McCarty, have never been in foster care. If that makes me lucky, well, you have a weird view on luck.


At age 18, I packed my Honda Civic with everything I owned and moved to the city of Monterey, California. I was ready to start my own life. I was an adult, by definition of society, and I was so relieved to be at an age where people would stop asking me the common kid questions, what my dad did for work or if I looked like my mom. I could just be a regular grown-up and live happily ever after.


But that is not usually how it shakes out for children of trauma. My early twenties were a rocky road meets a turbulent flight. Place a broken young woman without a loving foundation in the dating pool and watch her drown. Not even 20-years-old and I was trying to heal from wounds I didn’t even know I had. I was smart enough to understand that my childhood was far from perfect but broken enough to believe I had somehow earned it.


That mindset led to bad decisions. At age 24, I had yet to have a good night sleep in my entire adult life so, I did what was my family pattern and I turned to prescription medication both for insomnia and anxiety. With that long-awaited rest came the flashbacks; vivid, visual memories of the sexual abuse I endured when I was five years old, the only time in my life I had ever been alone with my mom.


Those months my family likes to reminisce about, when I disappeared with my mom, those months were actual hell for me. My mom would leave and I would be alone in motel rooms with men, her age and older, who did things to me, things that will haunt me, for reasons I will never understand.


All of this made me feel, if you can imagine it, even less worthy of love. More shame. That dirty, shameful, desperate feeling that can’t be washed off no matter how many scalding hot showers you take or self-help books you read. Visceral shame.


I attempted suicide.


Thankfully, it was only an attempt. The truth is, I have always had a will to live, a will to do with what I have survived a great good, to make my story end with a purpose. So, I called for help.


The call for help was answered by my brother, who sent his biological-father. My brother’s dad pulled up in a car, with his girlfriend, and took me in, another hopeful safe haven. On that ride to their home and in the months to come, I committed to living and pursuing the calling of purpose. I finally found a therapist, realizing mental support was not simply an option for someone who had lived the life I had, but a must.


Therapy is not easy. It is work, as in, you work through things, they don’t just heal from talking about them. While in therapy, the beginning of the idea of Wild Souls Ranch came to me. I knew I wanted to help kids who never known a home and I knew I wanted to use horses, the most healing and incredible creatures I had ever spent time with, to provide that help.


Therapy reveals more than aspirations and dreams, it shows patterns of dysfunction and challenges you, the individual to, for the first time ever, to choose not to continue the pattern.


After a long conversation, Savannah pauses. I can tell this is a part of her life story she doesn’t want to tell. I ask her a question, “You were in your twenties, right? In therapy. Did that happen to you? Did you realize there was a pattern of dysfunction in your life?”


The pattern of dysfunction was not only in my life, but it was generational, and challenging generational dysfunction is scary for anyone, but especially for people who are low on family as it is. Stepping away from toxic family behaviors is an individual choice but to those within the dysfunctional family system it is treacherous. It is traitorous.


Every single home I had lived in was riddled with some sort of very toxic behavior. From the motel rooms with my mom to the pill-popping of my grandmother to the home I was living in at the time, the pattern of my people stayed strong. Though, once again, I was to be grateful for someone opening up their home to me, I once again, knew the environment was far from healing.


In my brother’s biological-dad and his girlfriend’s home, again, there was a presence of both addiction and emotionally manipulative behavior. When I would try to talk about what I was learning in therapy or attempt to navigate the repressed memories I was facing, I was told that “we don’t talk about that kind of stuff in this house” and with that small sentence, I would give into the shame. This new family, who took in me, a young adult without any other family, I incessantly told me that my childhood wasn’t that bad and that I should, again with that dang word, be grateful that extended family had kept me out of a foster home.


And that was my new home. Was it enough to call the police? No. Was it an average American amount of addiction and dysfunction? Probably. Was it an excellent environment for a young woman who had just attempted suicide in order to escape her traumatic childhood? No.


So, I left. I left and went out on my own. Through therapy and a lot of processing, I decided it best to leave the family system that had failed me. Though it had been engrained in me to be forever thankful my extended family hadn’t turned me over to “strangers,” through therapy I was able to realize that none of this excused my grandmother’s refusing to come out of her room and acknowledge me, or my uncle and aunt’s decision to take me in only to throw me out when I acted age-appropriate or my half-sibling’s step-mom placing me in solitary confinement or my half-brother’s bio-dad’s girlfriend telling me I should stop complaining about my life and just be… grateful.


Yes, these people gave me a roof over my head. Yes, some of them did their best to welcome me into their version of a family but I, as an adult, realize that I deserved more than a bed to sleep in and a plate of food at dinnertime. I deserved and deserve unconditional love. I deserved and deserve acceptance. I deserved and deserve acknowledgement of what I have survived. I deserved and deserve a functional family system.


While that may seem an obvious statement to most, for me, it was a revelation, one I had to fight my instinct to believe. In order to do so, I had to cut ties with my “family”.  I had to separate myself from all toxic behaviors of my childhood, big or small.


I have never said their names or paired names with behaviors. That is not my place. I have shared that I choose to separate myself from my family system. I do that in hopes that others, young and older, will see that you can stop the pattern of dysfunction, abuse or addiction, though it may mean going at it alone.


It’s interesting to see someone speak of solitude without great sorrow. I ask Savanah, “Are you alone?”


I’m not alone. Actually, for the first time ever, I have a family. My chosen family. The Wild Souls Ranch family and my friends. They love me, they see me, they know I have been through some trauma and that trauma has made me who I am, for better and worse. They know I struggle, they know I am resilient, they acknowledge what I survived is worthy of note. They see me.


So, this social media post. The one that states you lie about your past and dramatize your childhood trauma, how did it make you feel?


Honestly, at first, mad, only because defaming my character could affect Wild Souls Ranch.


And now?


I’m… unsurprised. That’s my family crest- deny the dysfunction, call for the gratitude. I walked away from behaviors I consider toxic.  I never shouted their names and attached them to the behaviors I don’t want to be near. I just walked away. But that hurts pride, especially when trying to keep up small town appearances.


Believe me when I say there are times I would like to just keep the peace. But then I see a child enter the Wild Souls Ranch wraparound program, a child who, as much as it saddens me that this is true, has faced way more than me, a child who didn’t get the blessing of the break of a repressed memory, a child who has been dropped off at 30 homes instead of three, and I look at that child and I understand it is my job to show them that they can, one day, walk away.


If you or someone you love is contemplating suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.


Thank you for reading Savanah’s story. In working together on this article, Savanah and I have been inspired to write a book on the entire story of Wild Souls Ranch. What started as Savanah’s hope in horses has blossomed into one of the northwest’s most effective equine healing program for foster youth, adopted youth, and youth experiencing challenges. The journey from a vision to what it is today has consisted of challenges, triumphs, heartbreak, and hope. Stay tuned for the full story of Wild Souls Ranch.

-rebel heart poetry

Photo Credit: @lifeunruly

Photo Credit: @lifeunruly

Sustainable Social Work: Investing in a Healthy Work Culture

By Nora Mounce



When Nikki Kaufmann was hired at Wild Souls Ranch last October, she came with six years of social work under her belt. Having a particular strength for supporting victims of domestic violence, Kaufmann’s experience included direct fieldwork and managing the crisis hotline at a non-profit women’s shelter in Redding. In that role, she juggled both the needs of clients seeking support and the taxed emotions of the volunteers who staffed the hotline. Kaufmann found that trying to keep volunteers happy didn’t fulfill her in the same way as working one-on-one with clients. She remembers what she loved most about her work was connecting with women in their most vulnerable time– and helping them chart a path to strength and safety. 


What Kaufmann didn’t love was being on-call nearly everyday for a $12/hour job. It was exhausting. And even worse, she didn’t have much support from her superiors. “Looking back, I realized how much I had let my job negatively effect me. I hadn’t learned appropriate boundaries to protect myself.” Describing the classic symptoms of burnout – all too common in the social work field – Kaufmann eventually took a leave of absence that turned into a permanent transition to Humboldt County. During this time, she developed a passion for rock climbing and backpacking. She spent more time with her three daughters and eventually, began to feel more at peace with her own history of trauma and assault. But she never lost her desire to serve her community or her love of social work. It just needed to be sustainable. “Self-care and boundaries are the most important thing for longevity in social work,” explains Kaufmann. 


Since joining the team at Wild Souls, Kaufmann has seen more focus on the “missing pieces”  - self-care, boundaries, support, and team building – than in her entire previous social work career. “It you don’t have management that models and facilitates appropriate self-care, it can be challenging,” she adds. While always respecting the philosophies behind social work, Kaufmann was like many employees, struggling with a work culture that minimizes human need and leans on power dynamics to function - or dysfunction. Kaufmann often felt like work dynamics mimicked the same social ills they were trying to treat. She was ready for a change. 


“You can have positive work culture in social work,” says Wild Souls Executive Director Savanah McCarty. Explaining that is starts from the top, McCarty firmly believes that good leaders should be humble, open, and transparent. Perhaps even more importantly, they need to continue to work on themselves. At Wilds Souls, all staff regularly meet with MSW Holly Scaglione for counseling to support them around working with young clients who come to Wild Souls with histories of trauma and sexual abuse. “It’s the hardest work,” says McCarty, who believes that prioritizing the wellness of her staff is a logical choice. If employees don’t feel supported and fulfilled in their work, McCarty knows that stress and fatigue immediately funnels down to the clients. “If you don’t have a strong support system within your work culture, that’s where burnout happens,” adds McCarty.

To combat the many challenges of working with at-risk youth and social work, McCarty keeps an open door policy and encourages transparency and a holistic team approach at every opportunity. In 2019, Wild Soul’s Operations Director Dawn Watkins and Kaufmann will travel to Baltimore to attend a conference on the Wraparound program, a holistic approach to social work utilized at the Ranch. This summer, the entire staff will travel to Corning to attend a seminar with Buck Brannaman, a storied horseman who teaches that compassion and positive communication is key to successful relationships with horses – and one another. 


After years of searching for a job that felt right, Kaufmann has found the work culture at Wild Souls to be empowering, holistic, and inclusive. Knowing that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, Kaufmann and the Wild Souls staff share this lesson with their clients by living their healthiest life. 

Wild Souls Ranch social workers, directors, and equine specialist- Fall 2018

Wild Souls Ranch social workers, directors, and equine specialist- Fall 2018

Wild Souls Ranch team at the 2018 staff appreciation holiday party

Wild Souls Ranch team at the 2018 staff appreciation holiday party

New Ranch Manager Brings Experience & Empathy to Wild Souls

By Nora Mounce

“Wild Souls Ranch was exactly what I needed as a kid,” explains Wild Souls newest employee, ranch manager/head trainer Tessa Lawson. Growing up in Humboldt County, drug use was prevalent among the adults in Lawson’s childhood; as a result, she went through every kind of abuse a little girl can experience. Today, Lawson is a mother of two young boys and a sought-after horsewoman with over a decade of experience teaching kids and adults to ride. Though Lawson is quick to explain that horses helped to shape her life, she believes that she’s only begun to develop the emotional tools to cope with her own childhood trauma. But as Wild Souls new ranch manager, Lawson has never felt more in line with her purpose than helping kids thrive and heal through equine-therapy.


“As a little kid, I was always obsessed with horses,” says Lawson. With her wavy blonde hair, cowgirl boots, and easy smile, Lawson, 29, looks like she was born in the saddle. But growing up in Humboldt County, far removed from Humboldt’s rural western culture, Lawson never had the opportunity to ride a horse until she relocated to San Diego at 18. Working at a kid’s camp called Rawhide Ranch, Lawson started her horse education on everything from riding to veterinary care. “In two years, I went from knowing nothing about horses to being one of the lead riding instructors,” explains Lawson. She credits her hunger for knowledge pushed her up the ladder, and soon enough, Lawson was teaching a variety of advanced horse skills, including Western equitation, cart driving, and vaulting. “They could stick me anywhere,” adds Lawson with a laugh. 


Life changes brought Lawson back to Humboldt for a while, where she started the Zion Riding Academy in Carlotta, teaching kids without any horse experience. Lawson’s riding school thrived, repeatedly reaching capacity and having to relocate, and always maintaining a waiting list for new students. One of Lawson’s favorite aspects of her business was starting colts and training horses for their owners. 


In 2017, Lawson moved to Bakersfield along with her ex-husband and children. Sharing her story, Lawson pauses for a long moment after mentioning the word ‘Bakersfield.’ It’s as though there’s nothing left to say –Bakersfield should explain it all. Starting again, Lawson describes how much she’d underestimated her support system - friends and family back in Humboldt – until she moved away. In Bakersfield, Lawson continued building her reputation as Tessa Lawson Horsemanship in addition to starting an equine transport business to keep her clients in Humboldt. As the primary breadwinner for her family, Lawson was under considerable stress and working every day. “I’ve always kept myself busy,” says Lawson. “But that only works for so long.”


While in Bakersfield, Lawson experienced the “lowest point of her adult life,” eventually checking into a mental health facility and getting the long overdue therapy she needed. Talking candidly about her experience, Lawson again emphasizes how much she needed someplace like Wild Souls in as a kid. Emerging from her health crisis, Lawson’s therapists asked her what she’d like to do after leaving. Having met Wilds Souls Ranch executive director, Savanah McCarty, years ago at Hillcrest Stables in Loleta, all Lawson could think of was getting to Wild Souls. “If I could do anything to help kids to develop confidence and coping skills, that’s where I wanted to be.”


Returning to Humboldt County, Lawson feels empowered to be in a positive environment at Wild Souls, where she’s “surrounded by therapy.” Her job as ranch manager will be to take care of the horses mentally, emotionally, and physically – they have an important job to do –  so that McCarty can focus on everything else. “I hope to add to what’s already an amazing program and share my experience as far as horsemanship and safety” says Lawson. Her daily duties at the ranch will include helping McCarty and the staff with feeding and care and staying on top of the dental and medical needs of the ranch’s eight horses and mini donkey.


Wraparound: Holistic Therapy for Humboldt County Families at Wild Souls Ranch

By Nora Mounce

Since Wild Souls Ranch was established in 2012, the organization’s mission has always been to support youth experiencing adversity through equine-therapy and trauma-informed care. Often, such hardships come with periods of homelessness or housing insecurity, as children - with or without their families - transition from a relative’s homes to state-operated facilities or other temporary housing. While Wild Soul’s social workers firmly believe in the therapeutic benefit of counseling, one-on-one sessions are often ineffective when the root of the problem - what’s going on at home - is never addressed in person. Comparing traditional approaches in social work to Western medicine, individual therapy is almost like a band-aid trying to cover a wound that cuts across the entire family. While therapy might help a child gain control of their emotions and address past trauma, every youth - especially foster youth - have a complex network of caretakers, relatives, and family members in their daily lives. What if Wild Souls could provide holistic therapy and positive interventions for the child’s entire world?

In order to implement a more holistic and effective approach to social work, the California Department of Social Services (CDSS) developed the Wraparound program in 1997. The CDSS writes that, “Wraparound shifts focus away from a traditional service-driven, problem-based approach to care and instead follows a strengths-based, needs-driven approach.” Seeing a lapse in effectiveness in traditional, Western approaches to individual therapy, Wraparound was designed to provide services that are individually and culturally appropriate for each client, while striving to create stability and achieve positive goals.

In Humboldt County, children and family service providers began integrating Wraparound services into established agencies in our community in 2016. In addition to the holistic perspective that accounts for a child’s entire scope of influence, Wraparound also strives to eliminate barriers to service that are common to bureaucratic processes. The CDSS writes, “Wraparound can reduce the risk of out-of-home placement and recidivism by bringing individuals, agencies, and the community together as a decision-making team with the central focus on meeting the needs of the child and family.”

In 2017, Wild Souls initiated the Wraparound Program at the ranch with two families, but in 2019, WSR will continue partnering with Humboldt County providers to expand Wraparound services for youth adopted from foster care. Wild Souls Executive Director Savanah McCarty firmly believes in the holistic approach of “Wrap,” explaining how it “wraps around” families in crisis with positive interactions and therapy. Much like Wild Souls current approach, each client and their family or support network will be treated uniquely based on their specific needs and challenges.

Jennifer “Scully” Powell, a former psychology lecturer at Humboldt State, works as Independent Mental Health Clinician and provides Wrap services to various agencies in Humboldt County. Along with Kim Kowalsky, Powell will lead Wraparound at Wild Souls.  

“I’m going to be working with families who have adopted children through the foster care system who are struggling,” explains Powell. She adds that by the time a client is referred to Wrap, the family is often in crisis and need a higher level of support. Scully starts by collecting an in-depth social and emotional background for each client, so that any service provider interacting with the client can access their developmental history - much like a mental health medical record. In order to collect this information, Scully conducts assessments with primary care physician, teachers, behaviorists, parents, and caregivers - anyone who has interacted with the child.

“I’m so excited about this program, because I think it’s going to be so amazing,” says Powell.  She and Kowalsky have been working together for over a decade and both approach mental health care and social work from a developmental and neuroscience perspective.

“When aversive experiences happen in neurodevelopment (in utero to 4 years old), there’s a strong chance of developmental issues. We have to get kids regulated before we can begin expecting behavior change,” explains Powell. By “regulated,” Powell means that children have to reach a point developmentally before talk therapy is even an option. Due to trauma and a lack of healthy neural development, many Wrap clients need support to calm their nervous system and access the cerebral cortex. Powell explains this is where equine-therapy comes in - the calming energy of horses provides a powerful tool for the Wrap philosophy.

As Wild Souls Ranch continues to expand their ability to provide therapeutic services for Humboldt County foster and adopted youth, collaborations with providers like Scully Powell and Wraparound are a welcome partnership. “Wild Souls Ranch is building a therapeutic web around these children and their families,” says Powell. “Everybody counts and everybody matters - it’s a team effort.”

If you know a child adopted from a foster care program who is currently experiencing challenges, please contact Wild Souls Ranch to inquire about services and support.

Wild Souls Ranch Wraparound Lead LMFT, BCBA, Jennifer “Scully” Powell

Wild Souls Ranch Wraparound Lead LMFT, BCBA, Jennifer “Scully” Powell

Giving Tuesday

By Nora Mounce

As we head into the holidays, most of us are even busier than usual, planning big meals, squeezing in shopping trips after work, and baking sugar cookies. But here at Wilds Souls Ranch – and in many homes across Humboldt County – the holidays aren’t about the hustle and bustle but can be painful reminders of trauma and loss. For many at-risk youth who are clients at Wild Souls, the holiday season exacerbates the stigma of living with less and going without. To make sure all our Wild Souls kiddos feel a little holiday magic, our staff works overtime to host a big holiday party at the ranch where everyone’s family – whatever that looks like – is welcome. 


Each November, we also kick our fundraising efforts into high gear, reminding WSR supporters and the community how trauma-informed equine therapy can be a force of positive change in child’s life. But we certainly don’t do it alone! In the last few weeks before Giving Tuesday– a national day of fundraising for non-profits and charities – we want to take the opportunity to recognize the donors and partners who support WSR and let them know where their dollars were invested.


2018 brought big changes to Wild Souls Ranch. We moved to a new 17-acre property, participating in the renovation and in the process, learning how to run a ranch. Through this transition, we have nearly tripled in size with the addition of a full-time a development director, social worker, equine specialist and two more ranch hands. We also increased our youth enrollment from 10 to 25 and held our first summer camp as well as numerous workshops for county employees, non-profits organizations, and youth. Most recently, the newly formed Family Wellness Court, a collaboration between Humboldt County and the Yurok Tribe, has brought on Wild Souls to assist local families in crisis. We also achieved every goal in our strategic plan last year, which included updating our financial reporting, developing new programs, and creating wellness plans for staff and our horses. Most importantly, we saw significant improvements in youth, even moving some teenagers into mentor roles and paid staff positions to oversee youngsters. Overall, we are motivated by the everyday sings of improved self-confidence, family stability, kindness and awareness throughout the Wild Souls network of children and families. 


For supporting these major accomplishments, we’re sending a GIANT thank you to Shamus T-Bones, Eel River Brewery, Lost Coast Brewery, Dorris & Daughter Catering, Ramone’s Bakery, Humboldt Distillery, Humboldt Craft Spirits, Humboldt Cider Co., Tuya’s Ferndale, and Brett Shuler Fine Catering, for providing delicious eats and libations at our annual fundraisers. Without your craft beers, BBQ, spirits, and renewable vittles (aka – cash!), we simply couldn’t host annual fundraising events like Silver Spurs, Sip of Summer, and Women & Whiskey. Not only are these events a great time – and just a little rowdy – they are essential to funding our daily operations. Additionally, a BIG thanks to our event sponsors Grocery Outlet, Ferndale Pizza, From the Front Porch, Timber Boutique, Great Western, Edward Jones Hec Wood, the City of Fortuna, the McLean Foundation, and Mistwood Montessori for making sure we have all resources to make magical nights like these happen. 


Finally, we want to recognize the individual donors and non-profit organizations that partner with Wild Souls each year to double our fundraising efforts and award grants to our growing non-profit. A HUGE thanks to Zwerdling Law, Harber's Insurance, Mark and Sherri Carter, the Humboldt Area Foundation, Hops in Humboldt, Humboldt Sponsors, the YEP Program, the Christine and Jalmer Berg Foundation, Coast Central Credit Union, Kiwanis Club of the North Coast, Fortuna Sunrise Rotary, the USDA, Eureka Soropomists, and the Humboldt Association of Realtors.You don’t know how much your continued support means! In 2019, your donations will go directly to increasing support for Humboldt County families, increasing youth attendance, and working with community groups to develop a Wild Souls Ranch Scholarship. 


We couldn’t be Wild Souls without you – THANK YOU – and Happy Holidays. If you’re inspired to donate to Wilds Souls Ranch this GIVING TUESDAY, please TAKE ACTION today!


Wild Souls Ranch Partners with Yurok Family Wellness Court

By Nora Mounce

Judge Abby Abinanti (photo courtesy of the Yurok Tribe)

Judge Abby Abinanti (photo courtesy of the Yurok Tribe)



No parent sets out and says, ‘I want to harm my child,’” says Judge Abby Abinanti. “That’s just not how it works.” 


A Yurok tribe member raised in northern Humboldt County, Judge Abby – as she prefers to be called – is all too familiar with the family instability that’s so tightly correlated with rural poverty. Abinanti’s own childhood included traumatic periods of separation from her mother, during which she was supported by her extended family and community. Abinanti stresses that being responsible for others – the “it takes a village” mentality – is rooted in Yurok culture. 


With decades of experience as California Superior Court commissioner, Abinanti also serves as the chief judge of the Yurok Tribal Court. Instead of choosing to retire – it’s been 45 years since Abinanti graduated from law school at the University of New Mexico - she commutes between her Klamath home and San Francisco every two weeks. When presiding over disputes in the tribe, Abinanti disrobes from her judge’s cloaks and sits eye-to-eye with the families who pass through her doors. Removing the intimidating hierarchal roles from proceedings is integral to what Abinanti refers to as “incorporating traditional culture” into the courtroom. Simple measures such as inquiring after people’s families (she knows most of them) and treating everyone with respect are fundamental to positive outcomes. After decades of working to integrate restorative justice measures into the system, Abinanti has now partnered with Humboldt County to introduce the Yurok Family Wellness Court. “We want to strengthen our families,” explains Abinanti. She stresses that people cannot overcome the adversity, addiction, and inter-generational trauma that plague her community alone – they need help.  


Earlier this year, Wild Souls Ranch approached Abinanti and her colleague Judge Joyce Hinrichs about partnering with the program to help more families successfully reunite. Jumping at the opportunity, Abinanti explains how she views Wilds Souls Ranch as a new member of the family. “They have a real approach,” says Abinanti. “You can’t consequence people into good behavior. You have to model it.”


Wild Souls Ranch executive director, Savanah McCarty, believes that offering equine-therapy to Yurok families in the dependency system will be a positive step for the entire community. “We’re going to have biological parents out at the ranch for the first time,” explains McCarty. “It’s all about trying to help families stay together.” As the new partnership develops, Abinanti and McCarty hope to eventually hold one of Yurok Family Wellness Court negotiations on-site at Wild Souls. The scenic ranch in Fortuna possesses a peaceful beauty that is healing in itself - a welcome respite for families enduring hard times. 


Like the Wild Souls Ranch model of trauma-informed care, Abinanti believes in serving families holistically and reserving punitive measures and incarceration as a last resort. In order to be successful at family reunification, it’s essential to focus on traditional values like family, preserving culture, and respect for the land. Horses are big part of that. “In many ways, horses have better sense than other animals – as in people. They take you at face value.” says Abinanti. 


As Wild Souls Ranch continues to expand their capacity to serve Humboldt County’s at-risk youth, the organization is dedicated to maintaining their holistic perspective and partnering with like-minded organizations. Welcoming Yurok families to the ranch will be an inspirational step forward to actualizing Wild Souls Ranch commitment to being, “A place where bonds are made, foundations are built, and spirits are healed.



The Wild Souls Way Wins Big

Every fall, the Humboldt Association of Realtors (HAR) gathers together for the Annual Benefit Golf Tournament Auction at the Beau Pre Golf Course in Eureka. At the 24th annual, the Humboldt realtors selected Wild Souls Ranch as the non-profit benefactor. Wild Souls Ranch staff Dawn Watkins, Abby Samaniego, and Maddie Andersen dusted off their boots to attend the welcome dinner on September 13th that the Eureka Elks Lodge. After enjoying the camaraderie and steak dinner, the Wild Souls staff took the opportunity to thank the Humboldt Association of Realtors by educating the crowd on the “wild souls way.” 


After a brief introduction from Operations Manager Dawn Watkins, everyone quieted to hear to Maddie Andersen’s personal story of healing through equine therapy. A 15-year-old ranch hand, Maddie found her way to Wild Souls as an unhappy and troubled youth. In her speech, Maddie describes her memories of feeling depressed and disconnected before she visited Wild Souls. The playful smile and gentle touch of the horses caught Maddie off-guard – she had never spent much time around horses – and her spirits start to lift. “I learned that the program is not about becoming a good horseback rider, it's about improving yourself as a person and working through your challenges with the help of horses,” writes Maddie.  


Maddie began spending all her extra time at Wild Souls, helping out with ranch chores, learning to ride, and assisting Executive Director Savanah McCarty. Known around Wild Souls as “Mini-Savanah,” Maddie now has her sights set on becoming the Ranch’s next executive director. Fearlessly sharing her personal story with the couple hundred guests in attendance, no one could find a trace of the unhappy girl Maddie remembers before horses – and Wild Souls Ranch – came into her life. 


With auction prizes ranging from Fire & Light glassware to a romantic getaway at the Benbow Inn, the annual fundraiser will make a huge impact for the Wild Souls Ranch non-profit budget. With big dreams of expanding operations to serve more at-risk Humboldt County youth, it was an honor to be selected as the 2018 benefactor. A huge thanks to the Humboldt Realtors Association and all this year’s golf tournament participants and organizers!


Camp With a Purpose: Summer of Horses and Healing

An incredibly seasoned foster mother with fifteen years of experience, Melissa Norwood was at a crossroads with how to help her adopted son Landon. A six-year-old with an extremely rough start in life, Landon had been exhibiting anger and impulse control issues. “Coming from the domestic violence background, it was understandable,” explains Melissa. But in a household with his mildly autistic older brother and three other foster children, Landon’s physical and emotional outbreaks were painful for the entire family. Also, the Norwoods own a few horses and Landon was adamantly against the idea of riding and exhibiting an escalating fear of horses. Knowing Wild Souls Ranch through the local Foster Parent Association, the Norwoods decided to send Landon to the Wild Souls Ranch kids camp with the simple goal of getting on a horse.  


At camp, the kids participate in various activities including an art therapy session where each child is asked to draw something. “Landon drew a picture of a house, but when he was taken [by CPS], he and his brother were living in a motel.” Landon’s house wasn’t any house, but a spot-on rendition of the visitation center where he and his brother were allowed to see their father. Landon also drew a car in his picture and told the Wild Souls Ranch social workers that it was his dad’s car and called the picture, “Dad’s House.” In reality, Landon’s father never drove and only had a bicycle for transportation. Today, both of Landon’s parents have “stepped out of the picture completely,” Melissa says carefully.


The art therapy session sounds so simple, yet it proved to be a profound and transformative process for Landon. Melissa reports that in the last month since attending the Wild Souls Ranch camp, “He’s deescalated almost over 100%.” After the activity, Melissa and her wife, Nickie, took the drawing to Landon’s therapist and said, “There’s meaning to this, but help us figure it out!” The therapist told her that clearly Landon had a story to tell – getting to the root of it would help them understand where Landon’s anger and impulse control was coming from. “Subconsciously, he’s been processing everything that’s going on,” says Melissa. “Clearly, the Wild Souls team unlocked that box.”


Wild Souls Ranch executive director, Savanah McCarty, explains there’s a perception that their days are spent playing with ponies. Melissa and Landon’s story – about early childhood trauma, a drawing, and having a story to tell – paints a far different picture. “That staff brought something out of him,” says Melissa. “Whatever happened in that session, it unlocked something for Landon.” Today, Landon’s therapist has redirected his treatment to focus on his “origin story,” a social work term that essentially means trying to understand where – and who – you come from. Melissa and Nickie are now supporting Landon as he tried to unpack his personal origin story. As a child who was filed into the system around age 2 – and acted as the caretaker for his older brother – Landon never had the psychological or emotional ability to process what happened. As his Melissa explains, it’s pretty understandable that Landon is angry about the loss of his biological parents.


“My expectation was to for him to want to get on a horse. Because we have horses,” says Melissa. “Now we have a kid who is trying to be safe and not hurt people. Whatever Savanah did, it obviously hit a cord.”


Living in Humboldt County, the Norwoods know Wild Souls Ranch and their mission well. “The work that’s getting done there with these kids… there are not words for it,” says Melissa. “It’s priceless.” While she’s overcome with how therapeutic the ranch has been for Landon, Melissa is also 100% behind Wild Souls efforts to expand their services. “We have this pot of gold and we need to use it.”


And Landon? He’s all about horses now.


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Riding on Dreams


When Wild Souls Ranch – an equine-based therapy program for at-risk youth – was established in 2012, the program survived on sweat, tears and dreams. A vision hatched by the organization’s Founder and Executive Director, Savanah McCarty, the program’s mission is providing therapeutic equine youth and family services for foster youth, adopted youth, and youth experiencing challenges. Established as a 501c3 in 2014, Wild Souls Ranch (WSR) raised an operational budget of less than $7,000 in their first year as an official non-profit organization with only two donated horses and one rented pasture and paddock space at a local boarding facility. Today, McCarty oversees a paid staff of nine women and a newly renovated 17-acre ranch thanks to their new state funded program and increased financial support from the community. Sustaining a period of inspirational growth – including a re-location and a new ranch in 2018 - McCarty and her team are holding tight to even bigger dreams for WSR’s future.  


In Humboldt County, 52.8% of children under 18 live in poverty – a startling statistic that the staff and volunteers at WSR know all too well. The consequences of rural poverty and family instability result in far too many Humboldt County youth being funneled into heavily burdened state programs. Knowing the adversity of the foster care system firsthand, McCarty ardently believes in the healing power of horses for children and teens enduring trauma, abuse, and neglect. In a uniquely designed equine-therapy program, youth work one-on-one with social workers to build emotional skills and identify personal challenges. Outside of sessions, WSR clients learn the fundamentals of caring for the seven WSR horses, and the newest ranch addition, Merle the mini donkey. When clients arrive at WSR in Fortuna, McCarty and her staff have both an equine assisted growth and learning session and barn chores planned for each client. As youth advance through the WSR program and learn basic horsemanship, they earn the opportunity to learn to ride – a transformative experience for any child. While many equine-therapy programs don’t have policies that allow clients to actually get on horses, WSR believes that life-changing relationships emerge when kids learn how to respectfully guide an animal and bond while riding. For at-risk youth with unfair and painful histories, the feeling of being understood and learning to practice safe and appropriate communication is priceless. 


At WSR’s new home in the farm town of Fortuna, pastoral views of the Eel River Valley encircle the ranch. Sitting in the sunshine listening the occasional neigh of the horses and watching the ranch’s flock of baby ducklings, the sharp edges of the outside world blur. McCarty agrees that WSR is a magical place but believes it’s important for the public to understand the real nature of the work they do at the ranch. Humboldt County youth come to WSR with any number heartbreaking stories in their pocket. Having WSR as a consistent source of structure, positivity, and education might be the experience that puts a child on positive path for life – it has before, and it will again. In a country experiencing a rising tide of political unrest and adversity, WSR is a safe haven. As the staff continues to expand their capacity to serve at-risk youth, WSR is committed to welcoming those for whom fresh air, sunshine, and horses might be everything.

[Written by Nora Mounce]



About the writer: Nora Mounce

Nora Mounce writes stories about food, cannabis, and community. She is a regular contributor to the North Coast Journal, Humboldt Insider Magazine, The Emerald Magazine, and Edible Shasta-Butte. When not writing, Nora runs a vacation rental in her 118-year-old Victorian in Eureka, California. She believes in working to preserve the beauty of Humboldt by writing about local farms and food, rivers and redwoods, and the strength of the community.