I never had animals growing up in the small, southwestern Pennsylvania town of Donora, but I always had a great affinity for them and their kind, gentle demeanor. I never could have known the role animals would play in my life, but as it turned out they have become a very rewarding part of a journey that has otherwise been extremely difficult. At the end of 2014, I was riding high on the coattails of a new job and a recent marriage. After serving as the Sexual Assault Response Coordinator for the PA National Guard, I accepted a role for the same position at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle. My husband, Jerry, a retired veteran of 34 years, was serving in a civilian capacity as the Deputy Adjutant General of Veterans Affairs for Pennsylvania. Life was good and we were happily chugging along. In April of 2015, however, both of our lives were abruptly interrupted by the onset of Guillain-Barre Syndrome(GBS); GBS is a rare but serious autoimmune disorder in which the immune system attacks healthy nerve cells in your peripheral nervous system. This leads to weakness, numbness, and tingling and can eventually cause paralysis. At my worst, I became paralyzed from the nerve damage and also experienced immense pain.
The physical road to recovery was not easy. After spending three weeks in the hospital, I began physical and occupational therapy. After a week of therapy, I was able to take a few steps on my own and return home where I could continue building my strength. The first year after my recovery was particularly difficult; I never made it back to work full time. Chronic nerve pain and migraines meant medications, and those medications led to some very unpleasant side effects. Some of the issues I was dealing with were also listed as side effects of the medications I was required to take. When I realized this, I started researching to see what I could do to alleviate the number of medications I was taking, or at least minimize the dosages. I found a few health documentaries on Netflix that I watched. The research and documentaries were eye-opening in terms of the role that diet could play in either contributing or alleviating some of my symptoms… it also opened my eyes to the horrific conditions in which animals are raised for food.
During that first year, I decided to drop meat from my diet. I started minimizing my dairy intake until finally, I managed to be completely plant-based. Also, during that first year, I started volunteering at an animal sanctuary. It was hard to unsee the animal suffering in some of those documentaries, which, in my opinion, is why so many people choose to not watch them. It is easier to compartmentalize the animals that we see as domesticated from the animals we see as food, but the reality is that they all deserve kindness, they all feel pain, and they all will use every bit of strength they have in their struggle to live, however in vain that struggle may be.
Spending time with farmed animals made me realize how gentle they are, how smart they are, and how important their bonds with each other are to their well-being. In terms of my own well-being, I realized how therapeutic it was to be around them. The sanctuary was a very peaceful place to be, and doing kind things for these beautiful animals who escaped slaughter by some fortunate twist of fate was incredibly rewarding and comforting to me. So comforting, in fact, that I found myself wanting to be around them more and more, until finally I came home and told my husband that I would like to find some land and open an animal sanctuary. “Just five acres” I said, hearing a hint of desperation in my voice. You’d think this would have evoked some kind of resistance from my husband, but as with all of the other changes that had come along with this diagnosis, he was completely supportive. “Let’s do it”, he said. Silently, the deflated, broken mini-me began jumping up and down inside my little fog brain. Alrighty then… and my search for land began!
As it turned out, we could get more bang for our buck in Perry County; not just more land for the money, but also more usable land. We found a fantastic (and completely undeveloped) piece of land in Shermans Dale that has an immense amount of potential. My husband and I, along with some occasional (and very appreciated) volunteers, have started gathering fencing, building shelters, and planning out our pasture sections. We have a lot of work to do this summer and look forward to offering abused and neglected animals a forever home this fall. We also look forward to eventually providing an outlet for those who may find comfort in the therapeutic benefits of being around farmed animals, just as I do.
Huckleberry Trails Animal Sanctuary, a name chosen because Perry County is home to two of only about 100 colonies of huckleberry boxwoods in the entire world, will be a place of respite; a place surrounded by the calmness of nature, free from the cruelty of suffering and slaughter, and a place enveloped in peace, freedom, and new beginnings.
If you would like to help us save these precious lives, please make your tax-deductible donation via PayPal. Donations in any amount are greatly appreciated; no amount is too small. If you would like to become eternally recognized as a Founding Donor, you can make a minimum tax-deductible donation of $25. You can follow our journey here on our website, on Facebook and Instagram.
- Gina Beck