(Tampa, FL – December 16) – At Mary Help of Christians Center in Tampa, Mary Has a Little Farm has become one of the fastest developing programs offered to the young people of the local community.
Mary Has a Little Farm is not a completely new work at Mary Help, but it is a project that has continued to develop and grow through the years. The program is intended for students from kindergarten to eighth grade and is open to all schools. The full tour of Mary Has a Little Farm is about one and a half to two hours long. There are two main parts to the field trip: the barnyard and the hayride.
In the barnyard, Ms. Kay, with the help of a few adult volunteers and Cristo Rey Tampa Salesian High School students, takes half of the visiting group and facilitates a “meet and greet” session. This consists of six or seven stations of individual pens, which have several kinds of very sweet and social “little” farm animals—miniature horses, miniature donkeys, chickens, goats, and sheep. One of the favorite parts for the young people is the corral, where students go on a horse ride. Inside the barn, besides the rabbits, there are the baby animals such as chicks, kids, and bunnies.
The hayride runs simultaneously as Farmer Tom takes the other half of the students around the campus to visit the horses and Annabelle the cow in their pastures. Farmer Tom talks about Annabelle, who is a dairy cow, and all the things we enjoy because of her milk such as cheese, butter, and even ice cream! At the horse pasture, the students are fascinated as the horses canter up to the gate looking for some hay cubes, while Farmer Tom tells them a little bit about each one. Thanks to an Eagle Scout project, he also takes the students on a short nature trail down by the back lake beyond the barn. Afterward, the children are invited to enjoy their sack lunch at the picnic tables, and then they can run and play in the enclosed basketball courts before they head back to their school.
Since 2012, Tom and Kay Conroy have been working to help bring new life and programs to the barn. Kay Conroy, barn manager and coordinator of Mary Has a Little Farm, stated: “The riding arena had seen better days, and we were constantly fixing boards, praying it would hold together. When I got permission to rebuild it, there was a moment where I realized, ‘For the same amount of material, I could build this into a different shape and completely expand it and double the size!’ This inspired many of the new ideas that are now the foundation of the program.”
About four years ago, Mr. and Mrs. Conroy started adding a few other animals and using them for the Live Nativity during Advent. These animals were embraced by the children of Mary Help of Christians Summer Camp, and this developed into a “barn” program that paired well with the horse activities at the barn. With this continued growth, one question continued to linger: “How can this program continue its mission about evangelizing the young?”
One of the many ways this question has been answered is through incorporating juniors and seniors from Cristo Rey Tampa. These students have the opportunity to assist the Conroys through the Ambassadors Program, which was created to allow students to volunteer during field trips. Several of these students already had some experience from working at summer camp, and it has been an excellent opportunity for the children from the elementary schools to be able to meet some of these high schoolers.
Mrs. Conroy emphasizes to the CRT students: “We want every visitor to feel welcome. When they get off the bus, we are all there to greet them. This has been a tradition of Mary Help since I have been here, whether it was for a retreat, a rally, or a service workday. We also want the field trip to be more than just learning about farm animals. We want to teach them to be kind to the animals, to respect them, to be brave, to be gentle, to laugh, and to have fun with them. The animals are also a vessel in which we teach them about Jesus. Just like the students, the chaperones have enjoyed hearing about the legend of the Jerusalem donkey that carries the cross of Jesus on his back.”
With this dedication to the Salesian mission, Mary Has a Little Farm has encountered extremely positive feedback from all who have experienced this exciting new program which inspires them to keep building on what they have.
Seffner Christian Academy, the first field trip group, had a group of 40 students and 33 chaperones. The following week, the Academy of the Holy Names brought 42 students and 12 chaperones. These two field trip groups were considered great turnouts, and they had an excellent time. On December 10, MHCC hosted a group from Incarnation Catholic School of 40 students and 12 chaperones. Each group has been unique in its own way, yet the common thread that exists within all the young people is the happy faces. This brings joy to all of the staff and volunteers, who can’t help but smile at seeing all of the kids running around. They get to have so much fun and learn at the same time. As Mrs. Conroy explains: “We believe that besides being so centrally located on a beautiful campus, one of the most attractive benefits is that we offer a safe environment. Our field trips are private and our campus is not open to the public since we also are a school. In today’s world, this speaks volumes to our families and schools.”
As the program continues to grow, Mrs. Conroy has a vision for the future of Mary Has a Little Farm. The first phase is, “Mary Has a Little Farm, and all of the schools are invited.” Phase 2 involves having day retreats where one can have the opportunity to “Reconnect with the Holy Spirit through nature and the wonder and awe of the small farm animals.” The third phase, which is already in process, is the hosting of events such as kids' parties, ladies' wine nights, wedding receptions, end-of-year business celebrations, and many other types of venue opportunities. The fourth phase involves giving back to the community, such as hosting a free afternoon for the foster families in our area.
Mrs. Conroy reflects on the overall progress and growth of Mary Has a Little Farm. She says: “We have gained an immeasurable amount of experience over the years. We have pared back what works and what doesn’t, and we are inspired to push forward and grow. We constantly go back to, ‘Are we keeping this work in prayer? Does it fit the mission? Is it God’s will?’ And to remember that this property doesn’t belong to us but only to the Creator.”