For Sabrina Schmidt, 26, a small, nonprofit farm for rescued animals just east of Sebastopol off Highway 12 is the closest thing she has to a childhood home.
On a recent visit, Schmidt greeted the animals, from a black cat named Barney to a brown-and-white donkey named Carmen, with the familiarity of family.
“I love this place,” she said, standing in the barn and breathing in the sweet smell of horses and hay. “If I could sleep here, I would.”
Schmidt started coming to the Sonoma Humane Society’s Forget Me Not Farm nearly 20 years ago after she was removed from her mother’s house at age 8 and placed into foster care.
During her regular visits to the 3-acre facility, she developed an affinity for the animals living there, many formerly abused and neglected like herself. She also built a friendship with the farm’s founder and director, Carol Rathmann, that saw her through a rocky decade in the foster care system and, in the years that followed, the challenges of finding housing and a job.
Schmidt still remembers the day Child Protective Services removed her from her mother’s south Santa Rosa home following a series of 29 reports documenting neglect, as well as molestation by her mother’s acquaintances.
“I was wearing pink corduroy pants and a striped shirt,” she said. “My mom handed me a Pop-Tart as I got in the cop car.”
Both of them were crying, and Schmidt remembers feeling scared and lonely. “As bad a mother as she was, you love your mother and you want to stay with her,” she said.
Authorities took Schmidt to Valley of the Moon Children’s Home, a shelter for abused and neglected children. Valley of the Moon brings the children who live there to Forget Me Not Farm on a regular basis, so Schmidt got to visit within days of her arrival.
Rathmann created the farm in 1992, when she was working as shelter manager for the Sonoma Humane Society. The hope was to teach abused children empathy for animals early in their lives and break the cycle of violence.
“My intent was to prevent animal abuse,” Rathmann said. “That hasn’t changed. What has changed is recognizing the benefits to kids.”
Schmidt doesn’t remember her first visit to the farm, but she recalls the animals she got to know in the early years: Einswine the pig, an old white pony named Sugar and Carmen the donkey. Many of the animals also had been abused before coming to the farm. Perhaps for that reason, Schmidt found she was comfortable around them — even large cows, horses and emus that scared others.
“Sabrina is shy around people, but not around animals,” Rathmann observed.
“What I love about this program,” Schmidt said, “is that children coming from abuse can turn abuse on animals (because they) can’t fight back. This teaches them not to do that.”
In the years that followed, Schmidt moved from group homes to foster care and back to group homes, never remaining at the same place more than a few years. Some of the places she stayed were among the nine child welfare agencies that work with Forget Me Not, so she returned to the farm intermittently. While nearly everything else in her life changed, the farm — and Rathmann — remained.