Tucked away on the grounds of the Veterans Administration Hospital is a peaceful garden where both birds and people can get the help they need to lead happy lives.
Serenity Park Sanctuary was founded by psychologist Lorin Lindner 10 years ago when she was the clinical director of New Directions, a one-of-a kind program located at the hospital that helps homeless veterans re-enter society.
“It’s a very comprehensive program that deals with drug and alcohol addiction, trauma recovery, family reunification and job training,” Lindner said. “So I was working with these tough military types, and it wasn’t always easy to get them to open up.”
As a recreational outing, Lindner decided to take the veterans up to a parrot sanctuary she operated at the time in Ojai, and she couldn’t believe the transformation that took place when the men arrived.
“The next thing I knew, they were down on the ground cuddling the birds and talking baby talk to them,” she said. “Sometimes people can relate to animals better than they can to other people.”
Lindner asked the Veterans Administration if she could start an animal-assisted therapy program on site, and Serenity Park Sanctuary was created. The project rescues unwanted parrots and provides jobs for veterans as part of New Directions’ work therapy program.
“So the guys who are still dealing with a lot of stress can work in this very peaceful environment to get back into the habit of being in a work situation,” Lindner said. “Plus they get the added benefit from working with the birds. Many of the parrots we get are also traumatized, so the veterans can relate to what the birds are going through.”
When people purchase a parrot as a pet, some don’t realize what an enormous commitment they are making, Lindner said. Parrots can live 40 to 80 years and are very dependent on social interaction.
The sanctuary provides full-flight aviaries so the parrots can live naturally in flocks. For parrots who have been abused or abandoned, the sanctuary is an opportunity for psychological and physical rehabilitation.
By working with the birds, the veterans get much more than just job training. One veteran Lindner worked with was having trouble interacting with people, but once he started working at the sanctuary his social skills immediately began to improve, she said.
“He began to interact more with others, he became more trusting and his experiences with the birds gave him something to talk about,” Lindner said. “He also started taking pictures of the birds and ended up being a great photographer.”
For Matthew Simmons, a U.S. Navy veteran of Desert Storm and Desert Shield, working with the parrots has helped him connect better emotionally in the other relationships in his life.
"The parrots of Serenity Park have taught me how to create a real emotional connection, and this connection has allowed me to create meaningful long-lasting relationships with those around me in my community," Simmons said.
Stanley MacDonald, U.S. Navy veteran of Desert Storm, has also benefited from his work at Serenity Park.
"The birds are like therapists with wings and they have helped me learn the importance of being genuine and being my true self," MacDonald said.
Many of the veterans who work at the sanctuary go on to work in veterinary hospitals, dog kennels or at pet grooming companies. One veteran now works for Los Angeles Animal Services and another opened his own animal-based construction company that builds boarding facilities and aviaries, Lindner said.
“Most of the veterans in the program have gone on to find really good employment,” Lindner said. “As a result, I’ve been able to reduce their medication intake.”
While the veterans feed the birds and clean their cages, they also give the parrots the social interaction that they crave.
“These veterans give them so much attention. They walk around doing their work with a bird on their shoulder,” Lindner said.
Serenity Park Sanctuary is open to the public by appointment only. For information about making a donation or visiting the sanctuary, call 866-727-7682 or visit www.parrotcare.org.