There are few things in life that bring us more joy than animals. Whether it’s the endless licks from your sweet puppy when you’re sad, or your cat snuggling up on your lap at the end of a hard day, animals never cease to warm our hearts.
At Safe In Austin, just outside of Austin, Texas, animals provide children with unconditional love and kindness. The family-owned and run nonprofit rescues abused and neglected animals, some of which are disabled, and introduces them to children of similar backgrounds. The organization rehabilitates and finds safe homes for the animals for some, and fosters a loving home for the rest.
Safe In Austin hosts ‘Public Days’ where all are invited to spend time with animals on the farm and more intimate ‘Healing Hearts’ visits which are available by request. And while donations are appreciated, both events are free.
The organization’s founder and owner Jamie Wallace-Griner, a 40-year-old mother of three, told Garden & Health during a phone interview that the idea for the organization was inspired by her son Jackson’s experience with their autism service dog.
Jackson, who is on the autism spectrum, had struggled, and Wallace-Griner believed that an autism service dog could help. The family adopted Angel, a Great Pyrenees, eight years ago.
“I didn’t really know what we were getting into when I brought her [Angel] home, I just knew I was desperate for help. And so, things like Jackson was self-injuring when he would have an autism breakdown–autism breakdowns are very typical for anyone that has autism or sensory overload,” said Wallace-Griner. Angel, who was trained to monitor breakdowns like these, was able to provide pressure therapy to Jackson when his mom was not around.
“If I wasn’t in the room to do pressure therapy, meaning holding his hands down and applying pressure until he could calm down, she would push him to the ground and lay on top of him and keep him from hurting himself, said Wallace-Griner. “She’s a big dog–Great Pyrenees are 100-pound dogs–giant, all-white, fluffy dogs. So the sensory aspect of something so soft and kind was also very healing for him.”
Just six to eight weeks after adopting Angel, Wallace-Griner says Jackson had his last self-injuring breakdown–a “miracle” she accredits to the dog.
Angel also helped boost Jackson’s self-confidence and made him more independent. Before Angel, Wallace-Griner says her son never wanted to go anywhere and never looked anyone in the eye when speaking. After the dog joined the family, Jackson wanted to go to new places, would converse with people, and began making eye contact, eager to speak with people about his furry white friend.
“When I tell people that Angel was a miracle for our family, I am literally not exaggerating. Since then it’s been this mission to share that with people and to share the gift of what that meant to me and also what dogs and animals are capable of doing for people,” she said. “It wasn’t her 18 months of training that taught her how to sit and walk slowly on a leash, but it was the fact that animals love unconditionally and that she knew that he needed her.”
After witnessing the impact Angel had on her son, Wallace-Griner and her husband David, both animal lovers, began rescuing animals of all kinds. Five years ago the couple purchased and renovated a farmhouse on 10 acres just outside of Austin, eager to share the same experience Jackson had with others.
In just two years the farm was home to more than 100 animals, all of which come from backgrounds of neglect, abuse, or have some sort of special needs. This led Wallace-Griner to start a nonprofit dedicated to rescuing animals, rehabilitating and finding new homes for those able, and providing a safe permanent home on the farm for the others.
Safe In Austin is currently home to rescued cats, dogs, rabbits, tortoises, pigs, chickens, goats, and horses.
“We have blind ponies, we have deaf dogs, we have animals with missing limbs or deformities of their limbs,” said Wallace-Griner. “We take in the ones that everybody else considers broken. We don’t consider them broken–their stories of resilience and hope are what help people that come to us that might feel that way.”
Love and family are at the center of Safe In Austin’s operation, and one thing Wallace-Griner is adamant about is ensuring the ranch is a judgment-free haven where those who are different or have overcome challenging pasts can feel welcome.
“We’re really big on the whole no judgment,” she said. “We don’t care what you look like, where you came from, the choices you made in the past, who you love, what you eat, or any of that–we sort of practice what the animals preach; we love you just the way you are.” The Safe In Austin owner emphasizes that people of all ages and abilities are welcome.
Ensuring that money is never a barrier is another integral part of Safe In Austin’s mission.
“We do not believe in charging a fee to come out for healing. I believe everyone deserves love whether they can afford it or not,” said Wallace-Griner.
About 10 unpaid volunteers assist with ranch maintenance and operations. Many of them are people who have been touched by Safe In Austin’s mission of healing.
One of those volunteers is 19-year-old Makenna Barnes, who began working on the farm in the spring. Barnes and her mom discovered Safe In Austin around two and a half years ago, and now her entire family volunteers weekly.
Barnes recalls a time when she brought her adopted sister, who has a past of trauma, to Safe In Austin that embodies what the organization is about.
“She was just kind of having a rough day. At the time, there were some puppies that had recently been brought in that were rescued from a bad situation. She fell in love with one of the puppies and one of the puppies fell in love with her. It was a really sweet moment.”
It’s joy-filled experiences like these and Safe In Austin’s loving environment that draws Barnes and her family in. And it’s not only the children who are filled with joy during visits she says.
“The parents like to see that their child makes a connection–like a child with autism connecting with a dog with autism. The parent’s child is like ‘mommy, he has autism just like me!’ So I think the parents get just as much out of it as the kids do.”
While Angel, the amazing service dog who inspired Safe In Austin, has passed away, her memory lives on through the organization’s mission. “We have this amazing thing here that is sharing her legacy. It’s a gift in that aspect–I get to talk about her all the time,” said Wallace-Griner. And, while running Safe In Austin is hard work, she says it’s the moments of bliss that keep her motivated.
“It’s for the miraculous one percent of what I do,” she said. “I just believe that we’ve created a miracle, and it’s my job now to share that with as many people and animals as possible.”