In this video, Debra White shares the startup story of Winslow Farm animal sanctuary. (Video credit: Sue Williams)

Living close to nature is a dream for many people, but for Debra White, it’s a calling. As the founder of Winslow Farm, a nonprofit animal sanctuary in Norton, Massachusetts, White has been caring for abandoned and mistreated creatures since 1996. She also advocates for the preservation of wildlife habitat. But it wasn’t an easy path to running the 17-acre, 164-animal farm, built next door to her childhood home. White, 68, had to overcome early family trauma and financial stress before getting there. And she brings discipline to the job: She won’t take on more animals than she can handle, and raises $250,000 each year to pay for their care.  — As told to The Story Exchange.

I’ve gone from hell to heaven.

My father had just built the log cabin I was born and raised in, when he got stricken with Parkinson’s Disease. He was 28. My childhood was back and forth to New York City hospitals with his experimental brain operations. It took away his voice. I was the only one who could tell what he was talking about — I was sort of an interpreter. I was 3. 

My mother was a closet alcoholic. My brother was a bully. So I took to the woods — that was my solace. I could hear my dad trying to get out of bed and it would take him hours just to stand. He wouldn’t let anyone help. I absolutely adored him. And I think that’s why I connected to the animals in a special deep way. Because I had to do that with my father. 

I spent most of my time observing and listening to the endless variety of sounds from the birds. The chattering of squirrels and the slow movement of turles. Pines, oaks and maples made me feel safe under their canopy. Nature truly was embedded deeply in my soul from an early age.

As an adult, I worked inside and I felt like a caged animal. Due to budget cuts, I was laid off [as an administrative assistant for a government mental health agency] the very year I built my house, on the property on which I grew up. I needed, of course, to make money. I took care of an elderly lady, in my house. I typed notes for psychiatrists that were at the clinic. I made stained glass windows.

But I really needed to do something more. I retreated to the forest and found myself sitting in the spot of my younger years, where I always felt calm and safe. For three years on a daily basis, I sat by the pond in a meditative state for hours at a time. I also felt a strong energy of Native Americans, who respected nature and gave thanks to the animals that nourished them. 

Feeling that energy, I started to pull my ideas into something concrete. I knew there were animals in surrounding towns being auctioned off for meat. Dogs that were on chains their whole lives. Wildlife that needed to heal from injuries. 

So I finally had a goal. I went back to my newly built home and told my step-uncle, Charles White, the story and he said, “Well, you better start somewhere.” So I put a cardboard sign on the roadside saying “Animal Sanctuary.” That was 1996.

I made this farm, and everything in it, with my father in mind. Every thought has gone into the flow and existence of harmony. The animals are housed in a beautiful environment. It is not a petting zoo. The animals can just walk away. They’re on their own free will, whether they want to be interacted with or not. 

Animals can bring healing. Almost 80% of the people say that to me. They walk in and say, “I’ve never seen anything like this.” They always say the energy is beautiful to them. When the Boston bombing occurred, people sent letters asking: “Can we come there? We just want to be somewhere safe.”

I love the goats. They are very playful, even when they’re older. They’ve very cool, very wise. You never know what they’re going to do next. They keep you challenged. They’re funny. They’re sweet. 

I like the alpacas, too. They’re pretty whimsical animals. They kind of float in the air when they walk or run. They’re beautiful. They don’t ask for anything. They just exist.

And chickens! I have a pet chicken that I bring to my house every night. He doesn’t have a foot. Chickens are very sociable. They’re sentient. The other day, a lady bent down to pet a chicken, and she said: “I never thought I’d see a chicken like this — I don’t think I can eat a chicken now.” And I said, “Perfect.”

Read Full Transcript

Debra SOT: So this is George, and he’s ten years old. He’s an African tortoise. Bean is a little Nigerian dwarf goat. This is Stardust, and he's 45 years old. He's a good boy. Stardust has a great following. He has a lot of fans. He gets Christmas cards.

TITLE: Debra White – Founder + CEO – Winslow Farm Sanctuary – Norton, Massachusetts

Debra SOT: They’re good babies.

Debra: Winslow Farm Sanctuary is a place where animals have been taken from abuse, neglect, and now live in a safe haven.

Debra SOT: The buttercups are in bloom today.

Debra: I was born and raised over there in a little log cabin. My father was an engineer, tool engineer, and my mother was a cake decorator in a supermarket.

TEXT: While still a young child, Debra’s father became ill and severely disabled.

TEXT: She grew up taking care of him.

Debra: By the time I was 17, I was very independent and goal driven, except I couldn't move out of the house because I was still caring for my father. And then I realized I didn't want to move. It was a big awakening there.

TEXT: Debra realized she wanted to build her own home on the land and create a nature sanctuary.

Debra: I worked for a veterinarian for 12 years and learned a lot about medical procedures and cats and dogs. I learned quite a bit about operations on horses and medications and temperaments and how to be around them.

TEXT: By 1985 Debra finally had saved enough money to build her own home.

Debra: I went to an auction, looking for antiques for my house. At the end of that auction, they're pulling these rabbits out of little crates and holding them up by their scruffs. I didn't know what was really happening. I didn’t know about animal auctions, that farm animals get brought to and they're auctioned off for meat.

TEXT: At her second auction, Debra found Stardust.

Debra: The more I was learning about the plight of farm animals, how they're being processed, the amount of animals and how they do it -- it just tore me apart.

TEXT: Debra bought more animals at auction.

TEXT: Soon, strangers started dropping off animals of all sorts at her property.

Debra: My step uncle was here one day, and he said, "You need to start somewhere. You need to put a sign out on that driveway." And that very day, I made one out of cardboard, and it all began.

TEXT: Debra set up Winslow Farm Sanctuary in 1996.

TEXT: Debra charged a $2 entry fee.

TEXT: For the first 13 years, Debra built all the structures in the sanctuary

Debra: It was important for me to do one thing every year. That was my rhythm, like, build a barn. Every single year. Maintain something the following year.

SOT: If I scratch him, he’ll stand there all afternoon. But yet if I take a brush to
him, he hates it.

Debra SOT: I call her the nanny goat, ’cause she’s a nanny to the goats.

TEXT: Operations rely on volunteers and 5 paid employees.

TEXT: Debra raises the annual $250,000 budget from donations and entry fees,
which are now $20.

TEXT: With 160 animals, the sanctuary is full.

Debra: You have to know how to say no, and I can, and I always have, if I cannot financially pay for them. It could turn into a bad situation with all these animals or if we're down three people suddenly. It's a fine balance to maintain, and I'm really strict about it.

SOT: Oh, she’s being brushed. They’re brushing her.

Debra SOT: And it took a couple years just to even present a brush to her. It’s touching to see, um . . . her to enjoy her life. That’s a goal here, my goal for all these animals.

Debra: I knew I cannot save the world. But it made a difference to thousands of animals that I have had. And it's great for the kids.

SOT: Bye, George! Where you going, George?

Debra: It was very important to me to have people to come to a place where they can feel, and touch, and smell, and love, and see it for real. They walk out of here a different person, and I hear it time and time again, so many thank you notes, so many messages back. So it's all love.