14-year-old Hannah Forsythe has rallied a community. She began volunteering at HopeWell Ranch three years ago, caring for horses while her mother, Miriam, volunteered with the ranch’s gardening program. When COVID-19 hit, it gave Hannah the time to innovate.
HopeWell Ranch, located at 6410 West Leiter Road in Weidman, is an experiential therapy farm focusing mostly on equine interaction. One day, Hannah noticed the ranch had two rabbits, but the bunnies lived in a small shed and weren’t used in therapy. Inspiration struck.
“Sometimes people are intimidated by larger animals,” says Hannah. “[Rabbits are] a good place to start smaller.”
Hannah Forsythe, 14, holds Peaches, one of the rabbits from HopeWell Ranch that inspired the Bunny Barn project. Peaches is a Mini Lop and will live to be eight or nine years old.
Six months before Michigan’s first quarantine order, HopeWell Ranch owner Jodi Stuber helped Hannah outline a proposal for the Mt. Pleasant Community Foundation’s Kellogg Youth Fund. The idea? Partner with the small animals to make a big impact.
Hannah and Miriam completed the proposal while in quarantine. As soon as the proposition was approved, the physical work began.
Once completed, the project will be a collection of rabbit-related areas. The main attraction: a 12-by-16 barn and bunny run which will house the rabbits and provide a therapy space. A second barn, to be named after Hannah, will provide education opportunities for those who want to learn more about the animals.
Stuber says Hannah wants to eventually bring a 4-H aspect to the Bunny Barn; the education center would be its base.
“What we hope to do is create educational opportunities,” says Stuber. “Bunnies are small and are prey animals. You have to build trust. How do you build trust? You spend time, you use quieter tone, you use slower movements. Relationship building, emotional regulation. Rabbits will help with that.”
Finally, the Peter Rabbit Sensory Garden, placed behind the main Bunny Barn, will allow garden wanderers to engage in all five senses with wind chimes, a gazing ball, and rabbit-related items. Stuber says the ranch works with many autistic children and the Sensory Garden will provide a richer experience for them.
“I think I want to go into working with animals, so this aligns with what I want to do,” says Hannah.
In the year since HopeWell Ranch received the grant, businesses and private individuals have devoted time, energy, and resources to bring the Bunny Barn to fruition. Eickenhout, Luthy’s Metal, a local 4-H group, DeWitt, Meddler Electric, Central Michigan Sand and Gravel, Thrivent, and others have donated resources or provided them at reduced cost to help move the project forward.
“Everybody wants to get behind Hannah and see this happen,” says Stuber.
The official ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Bunny Barn is currently set for May 15.