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Autistic youngsters meet animals they helped

By Margaret Gillerman

FRANKLIN COUNTY--As horses neighed and roosters crowed, Dakota Simon leaned over a fence at a farm for abused or unwanted animals and fed a homemade biscuit to a grateful hound called White Dog.

"I love animals and I just think they need help, like us," said Dakota, 13, one of a group of autistic youngsters who made a project of raising money to help creatures like White Dog blind, deaf and rescued from a puppy mill.
June 4, 2008 - Dakota Simon, 13 pets an old, thin horse at the Shannon Foundations farm. (Teresa Prince/ St. Louis Post Dispatch
The youngsters baked dog biscuits as a project at school, Giant Steps of St. Louis, which specializes in children and adolescents with an autism spectrum disorder.

On Wednesday, the students visited the non-profit Shannon Foundation farm in rural Franklin County, to deliver biscuits and a check for $520 they earned selling them.
Children with disabilities are more typically on the receiving end of community service work, said Betty Berger, the school's director. The biscuit project put kids such as Dakota on the giving end.

"Every student had a job," Berger said as she walked through the wooded rolling hills of the farm with the students. "Some kids made fliers and others posted them. Some kids baked the dog biscuits. Some took orders and sold the biscuits. They learned about money and counting and all about the animals."

The field trip included the opportunity to pet and feed dogs and a donkey, and to watch an aged red horse named Old Daisy get her hooves trimmed.

"Daisy came to us and was nearly starved to death," explained Rhonda Stephens, founder of the Shannon Foundation. Stephens lives on the 100-acre farm, tending the animals with the help of volunteers.

The animals typically have been rescued from abuse, are too old or ill for adoption, or belonged to people unable to care for them.

The menagerie includes about 100 horses, goats, pot-bellied pigs, emus, llamas, foxes, dogs, cats, deer and rabbits. Many are friendly enough to come right up to the visitors.

Stephens said the Shannon Foundation is not accepting new animals right now and urgently needs money for repairs and care of the animals it has.

"Donations are down terribly with the economy the way it is, and it's extremely rough for us," she said.

The foundation can be reached at 636-629-4800 or online at theshannonfoundation.org.

mgillerman@post-dispatch.com | 314-725-6758

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