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Good for Santa Barbara 2017: Noozhawk's 2nd Annual report on Nonprofits and Philanthropy
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Good for Santa Barbara 2017

Warrior Goat Program Gives Special-Needs High School Students an Animal Spirit

Started 4 years ago at Righetti High, student-run nonprofit organization introduces animal husbandry opportunities while developing social skills

Righetti High School special education student Freddie Castaneda and Warrior Goat Program mentor Brooke Minetti get a photo opportunity with the goat they raised together to show at the 2016 Santa Barbara County Fair. Click to view larger
Righetti High School special education student Freddie Castaneda and Warrior Goat Program mentor Brooke Minetti get a photo opportunity with the goat they raised together to show at the 2016 Santa Barbara County Fair. (Warrior Goat Program file photo)

An after-school goat-raising program at Orcutt’s Ernest Righetti High School has student mentors learning more from the special education youth they are helping than anyone ever expected when the animal husbandry project got underway nearly four years ago.

Started at the Righetti campus farm in 2014 by then-senior Keira Van Patten with six classmates, the nonprofit Warrior Goat Program has grown to include Pioneer Valley and Santa Maria high schools. Today, there are nearly 40 participants among the three campuses.

Van Patten, currently a student at Boise State University, created the program with the help of her dad, Righetti math teacher Dutch Van Patten, after realizing special education students had just a handful of options for after-school activities.

Although Van Patten’s family had always been involved with volunteering for Special Olympics, it wasn’t until she was showing an animal at the Santa Barbara County Fair during her first year of high school that she questioned what her special education classmates who didn’t like sports did for fun.

“I thought about what do special needs kids do if they don’t want to play sports, and the Warrior Goat Program evolved from that,” she said.

Noting she herself wasn’t athletic as a high school student but enjoyed working with livestock, Van Patten described its impact on her life, as well as that of those in special education.

“It was probably the most rewarding thing I was ever involved with,” she said. “It taught me to enjoy the little things in life and not to take life for granted.

“Those kids are always happy and smiling,” she added. “Yeah, they have difficulties but they don’t let that get them down. I learned more from those kids than they ever learned from me.”

Righetti High junior Hannah Pope has been involved with the Warrior Goat Program since her freshman year and is now in charge of the project with the elder Van Patten’s help.

She agreed that participating in the program has been one of the best experiences she has ever had, and that she, too, has learned more from the students she has mentored than the youth have learned from her.

Warrior Goat Program participant Kaitlyn Sabedra and program founder Kiera Van Patten showed their goat at the Santa Barbara County Fair. The two raised the animal as part of the program that pairs special-needs students with Future Farmers of America mentors who teach them about animal husbandry and how to show animals for the fair. Click to view larger
Warrior Goat Program participant Kaitlyn Sabedra and program founder Kiera Van Patten showed their goat at the Santa Barbara County Fair. The two raised the animal as part of the program that pairs special-needs students with Future Farmers of America mentors who teach them about animal husbandry and how to show animals for the fair. (Warrior Goat Program file photo)

“Even if it’s not a first-place ribbon and they get a participation ribbon, it means so much more to them than it would mean to us,” Pope said. “It really makes me look at (showing) differently than I would have before. Instead of, ‘Oh, I got third place. It’s better than nothing.’”

She enjoys seeing how much fun the the special education students have showing the goats at the fair, and also said participating in the program has boosted her self-confidence and helped her social skills.

“I have learned so much,” Pope said. “It has really helped my personal skills. I was very shy as a freshman. It helped me grow as a person.”

The Warrior Goat Program does differ from a typical Future Farmers of America program. Special education students are paired with one or two regular education students who help the special-needs students raise the goats and learn how to show the animals for the fair.

“We go out there every day and do the daily needs of the goats,” said Kayla Minetti, a Righetti sophomore and program mentor. “We wash them, brush them, walk them and teach (the students) how to show (the goats).

“It’s really fun working with the kids and getting to know them ... and know they are having fun.”

Dutch Van Patten said the program also differs from typical FFA activities as the students don’t pay for their goats and everything they need to participate is provided for them.

“The kids pay absolutely nothing,” he said. “I breed the goats and donate the goats to them. We buy their uniforms, their clothes, their boots and their halter. We buy everything for them.”

He explained that all of the money the animals garner during fair is put into a pot, which is then divided between the students and the program. Fifty percent is put back into the program so it can be self-sustaining and the other half is split between the students.

Warrior Goat Program participant Mario Arrellano and Righetti High School junior Hannah Pope show off their FFA jackets during the annual Santa Barbara County Fair, where the pair also showed a goat they raised together. Click to view larger
Warrior Goat Program participant Mario Arrellano and Righetti High School junior Hannah Pope show off their FFA jackets during the annual Santa Barbara County Fair, where the pair also showed a goat they raised together. (Warrior Goat Program file photo)

“The experience is what it’s all about, but they get to walk away with some money for their hard work,” the elder Van Patten said. “Not a ton but enough.

“It makes to where we can run the program year round and breed the goats for them.”

He said local farmers and ranchers have gotten together every year since the program started to ensure the students receive at least $20 a pound for their goats during auction at the fair. Farm Supply Co. and the Santa Barbara County Farm Bureau are also big Warrior Goat Program supporters.

“This program wouldn’t be happening without some huge supporters,” Dutch Van Patten said, adding that a student’s grandparents agreed to lease the program property for $1 a year after land previously used for the school’s farm was sold.

“It is amazing to me how the community has embraced this.”

Watching the program evolve over the last four years, and witnessing the countless friendships made because of it, has been more than rewarding for Dutch Van Patten, who said it’s especially great to see special education students fitting in with their high school peers.

“What it has started to become now is you’ll see all the kids love the special-needs kids,” he said. “They finally fit in and are part of something. They are in the midst of everything.”

Kaitlyn Sabedra, 19, is one of those special education students at Righetti High who has been accepted by her peers, in part, because of her participation in the Warrior Goat Program.

She has been involved with the program since its inception, enjoys all aspects of raising goats but especially likes showing, and was named the high school’s homecoming queen last year.

“Well, they helped me wash the goats,” Sabedra said about the program. “They helped me with the homecoming queen. I was the homecoming queen last year, and this year, I was helping another person out with being homecoming queen. I gave them the crown, yes. It was really cool.”

The program, which has been duplicated elsewhere in California, as well as in Arizona, Texas and Wyoming, was named after Righetti’s mascot, a warrior. Dutch Van Patten said there was some talk of changing the name, but in the end, the decision was made to keep Warrior Goat Program.

“We were going to change the name, but then we thought these kids are warriors,” he explained. “They are fighting every day of their life. So we decided to leave as warriors.”

For more information about the Warrior Goat Program, or to make a donation, contact Dutch Van Patten at [email protected] or 805.260.6186.

Noozhawk contributing writer April Charlton can be reached at [email protected]. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkSociety, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Become a fan of Noozhawk on Facebook.

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