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.