A new partnership between the Sanctuary One animal care farm and the Armadillo Technical Institute is providing students with a hands-on education in day-to-day farm life.

A new partnership between the Sanctuary One animal care farm and the Armadillo Technical Institute is providing students with a hands-on education in day-to-day farm life.

Groups of students from the Phoenix-based public charter school have made weekly visits to the Applegate Valley facility for the past three weeks, performing cleanup, animal care, gardening and other various jobs. They also learn about organic gardening methods, composting, basic dog training and horsemanship skills.

It's an arrangement Sanctuary One officials say has benefitted both the farm and students.

"They come here having a lot to give and they leave feeling really good about themselves," said Della Merrill, Sanctuary One program manager. "It builds their self-esteem and makes them feel like they're doing something important."

According to its website, the school opened in 2000 and has a maximum enrollment capacity of 120 students in sixth through 12th grades. Some students have struggled in traditional classroom settings. ATI Executive Director Kim De Costa said the partnership made sense because of the school's emphasis on hands-on learning.

"We thought it would be a really good combination to have," De Costa said, adding the work has noticeable, positive effects on participating students. "We've only been out here, so far, a few times, and when we come back to school in a couple of hours, they come in to get their lunch, and the rest of the teachers say, 'Oh my gosh, look at these kids.' They're just peaceful and happy. It's a very different energy they come back with after being out here and working with the animals."

On Friday, the students began the work day by cleaning up animal dung from the nearby fields. Rakes in hand, the group walked across the grassy expanse, picking up the droppings and depositing them into trundling wheelbarrows, all to be used for fertilizer later. Affectionate goats and sheep approached the students along the way for a quick scratch behind the ears. Additional tasks on the day's "to-do" list included cleaning out the dog and cat cottages, walking the dogs and gardening. Each week's set of responsibilities has been different.

"This has been going great. I love animals," said 15-year-old Melanie Githens, a three-year ATI student. "Working on the farm is amazing."

Githens said she has noticed an improvement in her mood after each session.

"It's kind of like stress relieving. Being able to just connect with animals is just amazing. It's a great experience," she said.

Kamrin Milburn, 18, said it's been easy to fit in fun moments while working, either by petting the animals or enjoying the view.

"It's pretty cool. I like walking the dogs, especially. That's probably going to be my favorite part about being here," he said. "There's a lot to look at."

ATI is the third organization to form such a partnership with Sanctuary One. The Lithia Springs Boys Program and Ruch Elementary have similar agreements. Merrill said she would eventually like to see participating students take on more advanced animal care work.

"When it's possible, we'll have them connect with the same dog or the same farm animal each week, so they create that relationship and that bond," Merrill said. "It's a little tricky, though, because we try to re-home (the animals), so a lot of our animals are re-homed, but they'll have to learn about letting go, too. Everything they do here is based on life lessons."

Reach reporter Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or by email at rpfeil@mailtribune.com.