Sowing well-being: The Chris Center organizers want to establish a care farm to assist teens with their mental wellness

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The Chris Center was formed after Nancy Elbert had a personal experience with her children struggling with anxiety and depression.

“My kids all dealt with anxiety and depression, and six years ago, when my son was going through it, we found there wasn’t a lot of resources,” said Elbert, a Carmel resident. “The resources available had clinical environments and psychologists and therapists and medication, and there weren’t a lot of other resources to help support us.”

After Elbert’s brother, Chris Elbert, unexpectedly died two years ago at age 55, Elbert came up with the idea for The Chris Center. The organization is a nonprofit that wants to adopt a care farm model based in Westfield and is seeking land to build on. A care farm utilizes farming practices to improve health and wellness. Care farms are popular in Europe.

“I kept talking to people about it and knocking on doors, and I knew there was a connection between animals and the well-beingness of it,” Elbert said. “When my kids got upset or anxious, we would go to PetSmart or the zoo and we had all kinds of animals in our house.”

After hearing a presentation on a care farm, Elbert said she had an epiphany and realized she needed to do something.

Dr. Sandra Moreira, left, and Adele Smith feed alpacs.

Elbert, a University High School board member, shared her idea with fellow UHS board member Dr. Sandra Moreira, and Moreira came on board in October 2020.

“Nancy and I both felt really strongly there’s a connection between mental wellness and nature and animals,” Moreira said.

Moreira is a pediatrician with experience working pediatric emergency departments, and she said she had a strong professional sense that the mental health of children and teenagers wasn’t being met with current resources.

“We wanted to do something with animals and nature and helping kids with mental health and decided on a care farm model,” Moreira said. “There is a lot of research to show that being in a farm setting, using your hands, working with animals and working with the earth improves symptoms of anxiety and depression, gives people a sense of purpose and a sense of belonging, improves self-esteem. So, it felt like the perfect fit.”

The women found that care farms, at least per overseas models, didn’t exist in the Midwest.

“None specifically exist to improve wellness for adolescents,” Moreira said.

Now, The Chris Center’s mission is to be that place for teens. The nonprofit will conduct its first fundraiser, an Alpaca Party, on Sept. 18. It’s searching for donors and, specifically, 10 acres of land to build a barn in Westfield.

“We are focusing in Westfield, but we would like to serve all Hamilton County and central Indiana,” Elbert said. “We need the land. We need financial support.”

The Chris Center organizers want to raise at least $225,000 to build the barn, and they need even more funds to purchase land. When a location is secured, they want to appeal to volunteers to serve as mentors and obtain small farm animals, like donkeys, sheep, goats, rabbits and guinea pigs.

Once established, The Chris Center likely will offer service for a membership fee.

“Everybody I talk to jumps on board,” Elbert said. “This is a conversation we need to keep having about mental wellness, and teens getting away from the stigma is huge. In the meantime, we want to create an environment that’s happy, and it’s a community that kids can come to to feel safe and feel happy.”

The Chris Center board members are Elbert, Moreira, Jill Zaniker, Adele Smith, Elizabeth Coit, Dr. Kirsten Kaisner-Duncan, Joanna Kahl and Jessica Neidlinger.

For more, visit chriscenterpaws.com.

The Alpaca Party will be a fundraiser for The Chris Center. It will feature live music by Don Farrell, a country cookout, adult beverages and alpaca interaction.

 Attend the Alpaca Party

The Alpaca Party will take place on a farm with four alpacas at 14950 Little Creek Ave., Zionsville. The event is from 5:30 to 9 p.m. Sept. 18 and will feature live entertainment by Don Farrell, a live and silent auction, a country cookout, adult beverages and alpaca interaction. Tickets are $65 and include entertainment, dinner and one cocktail. Parking will be at Union Elementary, 11750 E. 300 S., Zionsville, where free shuttles will transport attendees to the farm.

Funds raised will support The Chris Center programming, such as its pilot program, the Alpaca Adventure Program.

“We will start at the end of September and run it for about six weeks. We are committed to serve teens now,” Moreira said. “Especially with the pandemic, kids are looking for a way to improve their mental health. This program will be our first, and we are looking at using alpacas and alpaca-assisted activities to improve wellness, focus on mindfulness and reduce stress.”

The program, which has already filled with participants and now is on a waitlist, will consist of a six-week curriculum. Participants will meet once a week. The Chris Center board also is in the process of establishing a parent education series to take place this fall. For more, visit chriscenterpaws.com.


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