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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.

“Carol, I have to say, has been one of the constants in my life,” Schmidt said during her recent visit. “If I had to name a favorite person, it would probably be her.”

When foster children turn 18, they age out of the system and are often left to fend for themselves without money for housing, career training or other survival skills, Rathmann said.

As Schmidt neared that age, Rathmann created a mentoring program at Forget Me Not intended to teach foster youths vocational and life skills.

“The statistics are very grim for foster kids graduating from high school,” Rathmann said, adding that a lack of support for such youths leads to high rates of homelessness, pregnancy and incarceration.

“The idea of the mentorship was to build a long-term relationship that can support them during their transition time.”

Schmidt was one of the first mentees. She volunteered at the farm and the nearby Humane Society animal hospital and helped write a manual on foster kitten care for the Humane Society.

Now, the program reaches 30 to 40 children a year. Each mentee is paired with a volunteer, and Rathmann is always looking for more mentors.

When Schmidt turned 18, a social worker helped her find transitional housing for foster youth, where she remained for about two years.

“I was very lucky to get transitional housing,” she said, adding that she also felt lucky to have stayed out of jail when many of her peers did not. However, she lost the access to transportation the foster care system had provided, so by necessity her mentorship came to an end.

But she and Rathmann remained in close contact, with Schmidt visiting the farm whenever she could borrow a car. On Monday, the two will meet there to exchange Christmas gifts.

Now, Schmidt lives in a studio near Coddingtown Mall and works part-time at a nursing home and as a dog walker.

She has attended Santa Rosa Junior College off and on with the hopes of becoming a veterinary technician. But she found she didn’t have adequate background for the math- intensive course load, something she attributes to being shifted to 10 schools throughout her academic career.

“Foster kids, because they’re moved around so much, they really miss a lot of important educational opportunities,” Rathmann said.

But with Rathmann’s help, Schmidt has found ways to follow her passion of caring for animals, even if they don’t pay.

Schmidt has been raising foster kittens for the Sonoma Humane Society for the past five years. She cares for them from the time they are about 2 weeks old until they are ready to be adopted a couple months later. Sometimes, she cries all the way home after dropping them off for adoption, she said.

Despite recalling the sadness of saying goodbye, her eyes lit up when she described watching the young animals find new — and hopefully lasting — homes.

You can reach Staff Writer Jamie Hansen at 521-5205 or jamie.hansen@press democrat.com. On Twitter @jamiehansen.

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