Come with us to Winslow Farm in Massachusetts, where owner Debra White runs a tranquil animal sanctuary that also happens to double as a place of healing for people, too. Hear Debra’s inspiring story, starting from when her father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease when she was a young child, and she needed to be his hands and voice. Today, visitors come to Winslow Farm to spend time with the horses, llamas and even an African tortoise named George.
Read more: Finding Healing Through Animals
COLLEEN: Living close to nature is a dream for many people, but for Debra White, it’s a calling.
DEBRA SOT: The buttercups are in bloom today.
SUE SOT: Beautiful.
DEBRA SOT: I was born and raised over there in a little log cabin.
SUE: Debra is the founder of Winslow Farm -- a nonprofit animal sanctuary, about an hour south of Boston.
DEBRA SOT: We try and keep a good sense of energy and balance here.
COLLEEN: It's 17 acres and home to about 160 animals.
DEBRA SOT: The alpacas and horses are together.
DEBRA SOT : So this is George, and he's 10 years old, he's an African tortoise.
SUE: Most of them have been neglected or abused.
DEBRA: Horrible circumstances beyond belief, some of them.
COLLEEN: But now, they live in...
DEBRA: A haven, in a safe haven with peace and harmony with nature.
SUE: We recently spent a day with Debra White, walking around the beautiful property, saying hello to the animals...
DEBRA: That's Cloud Dancing. She was born here. She's a mule. She knows no harm whatsoever, just love.
COLLEEN: And while we knew it was a sanctuary for animals, we were surprised to discover how much it's a place of healing for people, too.
SUE (from tape): Why do you think it is such a special place for people to visit?
DEBRA: It was very important to me to have people enjoy this, because I know how hard life is; and to come to a place where they can feel, and touch, and smell, and love, and see it for real.
COLLEEN: In today's episode, we'll tell you more about Winslow Farm -- which has been featured everywhere from the Boston Globe to Harvard Magazine -- people even sing about it.
DIANE BATTISTELLO: (singing) Winslow Farm, Winslow Farm...
COLLEEN: And we'll share how Diane's difficult and lonely childhood inspired her startup journey...
SUE: ...and also helped her become a disciplined entrepreneur. She has a kind of spiritual approach to nature -- but that's matched with a certain toughness and practicality.
COLLEEN: It's an unusual story that could not be more different than, say, that of the exotic animal park featured in Tiger King -- which for some reason millions of people binge-watched on Netflix.
JOE EXOTIC: My name is Joe Exotic and this is Sarge.
SUE: This is much more inspiring.
COLLEEN: Stick around.
COLLEEN: Our story begins in New England, and this piece of land, with its well-tended animal stalls and groves of shade trees.
SUE: The land itself has been in Debra's family for a few generations.
DEBRA SOT: And this is one of the original buildings on the property….
SUE SOT: Wait, it must be 70, 80 years old.
DEBRA SOT: Yeah, it is. It's about 90.
SUE: Debra, who is 68, has never really left her family's property.
SUE SOT: Was school far away from here?
DEBRA SOT: No, it was a couple of miles away, and I went through high school. I wasn't able to go to college.
COLLEEN: When Debra was very young, her talented father...
DEBRA: He was an engineer and an inventor.
COLLEEN: ...was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease, when he was just 28.
SUE: And that changed everything.
DEBRA: He had the IQ of a genius and he wanted to still do things and he couldn't because he was a captive by his own body. And I became his hands as a child. Yeah, at aged three.
COLLEEN: Her life became back-and-forth trips to New York City...
SUE: ...where her father had experimental brain operations.
DEBRA: He had seven throughout his 54 year life.
COLLEEN: One of those operations accidentally severed his vocal cord.
DEBRA: So I had to learn to communicate in a complete different way other than speaking.
SUE (from tape): So that's a pretty traumatic childhood.
DEBRA: It was. I was very alone.
COLLEEN: Debra says her mom was a closet alcoholic, and she had a brother, but they didn't get along. So, she took to the woods.
DEBRA: And I would sit for hours at a time by myself just listening to the forest.
COLLEEN: She'd listen to the sounds of birds and the chattering of squirrels, watch the slow movement of turtles...
SUE: The worse things were at home, the more Debra turned to animals.
DEBRA: The focus was on his illness all the time and my saviors were my pets, thankfully.
SUE (from tape): What pets did you have when you were a child?
DEBRA: I had a little beagle. And I remember being in the beagle's dog house, always cleaning it, crawling inside, always making sure everything was just right for my little dog friend.
COLLEEN: As she became an adult, Debra was drawn to caretaking.
DEBRA: Oh, I worked in nursing homes because I was taking care of my dad for about five years from the time I was 16 to about age 24.
SUE: She eventually took a job as...
DEBRA: ...an administrative assistant for the Department of Mental Health.
SUE: And hated it. Not so much because of the work --
COLLEEN: -- but because she really disliked working inside.
SUE: Debra told us she felt like a caged animal.
COLLEEN: Around that time, the young Debra also began to realize...she didn't want to leave home.
DEBRA: It was a big awakening there.
SUE: And so she began building a house for herself on the land.
DEBRA: I finally had enough money to get a mortgage.
COLLEEN: That's also when she lost her government job.
DEBRA: Due to budget cuts.
COLLEEN: And so she needed to find other work.
DEBRA: I always talked people into giving me jobs so that I could work at home.
SUE: Debra ran a transcription service for a while.
COLLEEN: She took care of an elderly lady, in her home...
SUE: ...and she even made stained glass.
DEBRA: I worked two jobs for I don't know how long, and then it became three jobs.
COLLEEN: But she felt...I guess you could say it was a calling.
SUE: She wanted to do something more.
DEBRA: I always wanted to take care of something.
COLLEEN: And so she went back to the exact same spot she went to as a child, in the woods.
DEBRA: It was a lot of meditation on the pond here.
SUE: For three straight years, she meditated every day, for hours at a time.
COLLEEN: And finally, an idea began to come to her.
DEBRA: I love being outside. I love animals. So I put it all together little by little...
COLLEEN: We'll tell you what happened next, after a brief break.
DIANE: (singing) Debra had a dream when she was very young to rescue animals and keep them free from harm...
COLLEEN: We've been sharing the story of Debra White of Norton, Massachusetts.
SUE: Who overcame a traumatic childhood...
COLLEEN: ...to build an animal sanctuary called Winslow Farm on her family's property.
SUE: But it took years for her to figure out her plan.
DEBRA: I didn't know what that big picture was, but there was something, like a seed planted somewhere that kept driving me towards building a home first and then the sanctuary.
COLLEEN: So, we need to mention a key piece of this.
COLLEEN: After Debra built that first home --
SUE: -- over 30 years ago --
COLLEEN: -- she began shopping around for antiques.
DEBRA: And so I went to an auction in a town down the road in Taunton.
SUE: And there she saw something that really disturbed her.
DEBRA: Little did I know that at the end of that auction, they're pulling these rabbits out of little crates and holding them up by their scruffs.
COLLEEN: She asked what was going on.
DEBRA: And they said, "Well, they're all going to be eaten." I didn't know there are roadside auctions that farm animals get brought to and they're auctioned off for meat.
SUE (from tape): So did you buy animals that first day?
DEBRA: I did. Yeah. I rescued six little ducklings.
COLLEEN: She brought them home.
DEBRA: And I made this beautiful swimming pool for them.
COLLEEN: So as she sat meditating by the pond, she began to think about animals being auctioned off for meat.
SUE: And dogs chained their whole lives...
COLLEEN: ...wildlife that needed to heal from injuries.
DEBRA: It just tore me apart.
SUE: The idea of an animal sanctuary took hold.
COLLEEN: And then one day, her step uncle was visiting, and he said...
DEBRA: And he said, "You need to start somewhere. You need to put a sign out on that driveway." And that very day, I made out of cardboard, which I don't like the word, Petting Farm, but that's what I put out 30 years ago. And it all began at that point. I think I charged two dollars to get in.
SUE (from tape): And you just had a few ducks?
DEBRA: Yeah, two ducks, and a horse, and a pair of goats, Hansel and Gretel. Yeah. Nothing was here. This was all wooded. I did everything; cleared the land.
COLLEEN: Sue, you really got the whole tour of the place, from Debra -- what's it like today?
SUE: It’s really a lovely property with barns and shelters of all sorts and sizes, for the peacocks, the miniature goats, the chickens, ducks and turkeys. Paddocks for the larger animals -- the horses and llamas and one of the largest pigs you’ve ever seen.
COLLEEN: So there's no lions or tigers.
SUE: No -- definitely not. There's lots of shade and flowering bushes along the paths and cats stretched out under shrubs or in the sun. When you arrive there’s a very cute little gift shop, and right next to it is a wooden cabin where volunteers chop mountains of fruit and vegetables for the animals. The thing that is most fun is that there are animals just everywhere, all relaxed and hanging out. I was walking over to see some of the miniature goats and nearly stumbled over George, this huge African tortoise -- I mean literally a couple of feet in diameter -- who was just making his slow way along the path to who knows where! The kids were just entranced by all the animals.
COLLEEN: And just to go back to all the buildings -- what’s really remarkable is that Debra built all those structures herself.
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.
COLLEEN: Debra attributes a lot of her engineering skills to her father, who finally passed away when she was 27.
DEBRA: I was his hands, literally. He was so, so smart. I use every bit of what he thought that he couldn't give me, but he did. If there are children out there that have parents with disabilities, they can learn so much in a lot of different ways that the average person wouldn't understand.
SUE: Debra's also incredibly disciplined. She won't take on any animals that she can't handle.
DEBRA: You have to know how to say no, and I can, and I always have, if I cannot financially pay for them.
COLLEEN: She raises $250,000 every year to pay for the animals' care and the salaries of about five employees.
SUE: Her funding comes from ticket sales -- the entry fee is now $20 -- plus grants and donations.
DEBRA: It's a fine balance to maintain, and I'm really strict about it.
COLLEEN: She can be tough on her staff and volunteers
DEBRA: Oh, if they're going to go out and clean a barn, they're going to clean a barn. I have extremely high standards; I've been hard on people. But it's a tight ship. They have the honor to be in these gates, to be around these animals and nature. And so they got to toe the line.
DEBRA SOT: That's a good boy. That's a good boy.
SUE SOT: Who's this?
DEBRA SOT: So this is Stardust, and he's 45 years old.
SUE: I got to pet Stardust -- he's a donkey.
DEBRA SOT: Good boy. He's a good boy. Stardust has a great following. He has a lot of fans. He gets Christmas cards.
COLLEEN: Over the years, Debra has had many many visitors to Winslow Farm, especially during tumultuous times, like after 9/11 or the Boston Marathon bombing.
SUE: And people have been coming during the Covid pandemic, even though she hasn't been open as much as before.
DEBRA: 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.
SUE SOT: It's funny because it's sort of a sanctuary for people.
DEBRA SOT: Yeah. That was important. I knew what I was doing with everything.
COLLEEN: We thank Debra for sharing her story.
SUE: And we thank you for listening.
OUTRO: This has been The Story Exchange. Join us next time to hear more stories about innovative and inspirational women doing the things you’d never dream of. Or...maybe you would. If you liked this podcast, please share on social media or post a review wherever you listen. It helps other people find the show. And visit our website at TheStoryExchange.org, where you’ll find news, videos and tips for entrepreneurial women. And we’d love to hear from you: Drop us a line at [email protected] — or find us on Facebook. I'm Colleen DeBaise. Sound editing provided by Nusha Balyan. Interview recorded by Sam Shinn. Production coordinator is Noël Flego. Executive producers are Sue Williams and Victoria Wang. Recorded at Cutting Room Studios in New York City. In case you've wondering, this beautiful music you've been listening is a fundraising song for Winslow Farm, written and performed by Diane Battistello.