'Solstice Sanctuary': A safe haven for animals and volunteers dealing with trauma

NOW: ’Solstice Sanctuary’: A safe haven for animals and volunteers dealing with trauma

SALEM, Wis. (CBS 58) --The connection one may have with animals can be such a powerful healing tool. Through shared experiences, a women-led nonprofit group known as 'Solstice Sanctuary' was born to help animals and volunteers deal with trauma through various forms of therapy.

Angela Axton started riding horses at age 11, and slowly but surely, it became a family affair.

"I started riding and then my sister started riding, and then my mom started riding, and then my dad started riding," she explained.

The family owns 40-acres worth of farmland in Salem, Wisconsin.

In 2011 the space was used for boarding--offering training and lessons. By May of 2021, it had expanded into a sanctuary.

"So there's seven goats, two pigs, three donkeys and five horses that are owned, supported by the sanctuary," she said.

It was a vision Axton and her friend Macy had.

"We both dreamt of animals in a barn that needed saving," Axton said. "We were talking, like, 'maybe we should start a rescue, maybe we should start a sanctuary, why couldn't we?'…her and I had both experienced some trauma in our life, so we knew the healing power of animals, specifically horses."

Axton said there were many years of self-reflection.

"A lot of childhood trauma with bullying and, like, core wounds of not being good enough, fear of judgment; a lot of areas where I was made fun of for riding horses, I was made fun of for loving animals," Axton added.

Her husband Bradley May said he too started riding young. At just six months old, he realized the power that came from connecting with animals and how they truly provide unconditional love.

"Bullying was a thing then, when we were in school, and then, I do think about it a lot, the world we live in today, with social media and everything else," May said.

"They don't care what's going on in your world, they don't care what you look like, they don't care about any of that, if that connection is there, it's real."

He's always supported Axton's goals and when she shared her ideas with him at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was no different.

"She said, 'this is something I really want to do,' I was like, well, 'this is incredible,' because it's not just rescuing animals, like, that's a piece of it but then connecting them with humans and bringing that together, that's where the beauty comes in."

Three other friends--all connected based on their love for horses---helped turn that dream into a reality.

"We knew how we healed together with each other, so then, it was like if we're experiencing this, others should be able to also experience this," Axton said.

The barn had always been a safe space for her, and now, with Solstice Sanctuary, that's also true for volunteers dealing with some sort of trauma.

"We have people who are in the military, we have people who have corporate jobs, we have people who are stay-at-home moms," added May.

The animals there are also in need of healing.

"That's a big source of fundraising because when we are taking in some of these animals, a lot of these animals are coming from situations where they've been neglected, they've been abused, they've been traumatized," May said.

The sanctuary offers different types of alternative therapy.

"Red light and essential oils, and massage, and chiropractic, even on all the animals and all the animals are fed whole food diets," Axton explained.

Nine years ago, Axton's family went into a deep dive on natural ways to heal the body.

"When my dad was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2015--and we did use some traditional medicine, did not do chemotherapy--we learned a lot, when you talk about research, a lot about alternative therapies," Axton said with tears in her eyes.

Thankfully, her father's medical scans are now clean. Her focus is geared toward helping others--and that is often tough.

"There's a lot of loss in it, you know, we've lost a lot of animals over the years and then on the flip side of it, you know the polarity of it is, it's like it's amazing to witness what some of the kids experience," Axton said. "What the volunteers share with us and how they love to come out because they can't wait to see josie or they love to come out here because they always laugh at the goats."

Depending on the severity of the case, they sometimes do end up taking animals to the hospital, and the bills can amount to tens of thousands of dollars.

Solstice Sanctuary was recently awarded a $25,000 grant from Northwestern Mutual Foundation. Out of 16 winners, the sanctuary was deemed one of four exceptional nonprofits across the country.

"It came at the right time because we had $12,000 in a bill for a shelter and two vet bills so half of it was like, poof, gone," Axton said. "One of the goals I personally have for the sanctuary is to hold healing spaces for children who have been trafficked."

Axton said she's done a lot of research on the corridor between Milwaukee and Chicago being a national hotspot for human trafficking. But regardless of the kind of trauma at hand, she hopes Solstice Sanctuary becomes the safe haven for those who wish to change the narrative.

"It's kind of rewriting those stories and rewriting the belief systems that, like, 'no, we are worthy, we are good enough,'" she said. "We've learned that what we offer externally to the earth, to the animals, to the people, is far more valuable than anything we've been told growing up as kids when we were bullied."

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