Farm Uses Rescued Animals to Nurture People with Special Needs, Teens Dealing with Mental Health Issues, Veterans with PTSD and Families Battling Cancer
December 1, 2023
WALL TOWNSHIP, NJ (MONMOUTH)–The late Dr. Robert H. Harris loved horses.
And when he died April 30, 2017, his wife, Mary Ellen, pledged to honor his good name and major contributions to society. The Golden Dome Foundation, originally founded by Dr. Harris and Mary Ellen, has since donated millions of dollars to charities and non-profit groups with special causes close to the doctor’s heart.
An ongoing recipient is the Allaire Community Farm in Wall, which has received donations totaling more than $2 million. The foundation wants to help the farm accomplish its goal of becoming financially self-sustaining, created to help people with special needs, veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorders, teens dealing with mental health issues and families coping with cancer.
The 25-acre farm on Baileys Corner Road in Wall is widely described as a magical place, with rescued horses, goats, pigs, donkeys and other animals. The farm, in appreciation of the Golden Dome Foundation, is now preparing to cut the ribbon on the “Dr. Robert H. Harris Equestrian Center.”
“I am so glad that my long-time friend, Judith Lolli, first introduced me to the farm. Our entire foundation board loves this farm,” said Harris, applauding the works of the trustees, Charles Grinnell, Paul Petigrow and Mike Schwager.
“Every time we stop by, there is always something new to see and experience,” Harris added. “JoAnn and Sean are very special people and I am so proud to see how our donations have positively impacted thousands of individuals each and every year.”
“Mary Ellen Harris visited one day, eight years ago, when we shared our idea to create our one-of-a-kind farm,” explained JoAnn Burney, co-founder with her husband, Sean, in 2013. “Mary Ellen told us she loved our vision but didn’t believe it was possible to come to fruition. Five years later she saw that the dream was becoming a reality and immediately began to financially support the farm and its mission.”
That conversation started a string of more conversations, as Harris steadily donated to support the farm’s equestrian operations and provided other support, as needed, including paying off the farm’s mortgage in 2022
Lolli said Golden Dome’s ongoing charitable work at Allaire Farm is an amazing tribute to Dr. Harris; it is the type of charity he would strongly embrace.
“Mary Ellen paid off the mortgage on the farm, helped ensure it will be financially self-sustaining and donated its Equestrian Center,” Lolli said. “Dr. Bob loved horses and had previously run Golden Dome Stables. The farm incorporates everything near and dear to Mary Ellen and her husband, helping people and animals truly in need.”
“Without having to worry about how to pay the mortgage, we were able to focus solely on our mission and provide more services to the populations who rely on the work we do,” Burney said. “Mary Ellen’s generosity has taken the farm to another level by allowing us to bring on more staff, increase our programs and build the structures we need to serve our community. Her support has directly impacted the lives of thousands of people and animals.”
With the foundation’s donations, the Burneys continually seek ways to honor Dr. Harris, who created an epilepsy drug that manages the disease.
You’ll find the 20-stall “Dr. Robert H. Harris Horse Barn” constructed in 2019, followed by an annex built the following year to store grain, hay, and tack, as well as to wash the horses. Then in 2022, Harris funded a 11,000-square-foot indoor riding rink, followed by an outdoor riding arena that opened earlier this year.
Putting it all together, the Burneys are celebrating the opening of the “Dr. Robert H. Harris Equestrian Center,” incorporating all of the Golden Dome Foundation’s donations into one package of deep appreciation.
The working farm is like no other in the region. It offers year-round therapeutic and educational programs. It includes the HOPE program for young adults with special needs seeking employment training, to veterans with PTSD who participate in therapeutic riding and driving, to kids working through mental health issues who are given a stipend to work with the animals at the farm – all designed to help with healing.
Sean Burney, who had a career in real estate before becoming a full-time farmer, said the extensive operation relies on donations, grants and individuals like Harris, who want to enrich the lives of the farm’s 300 animals as well as the thousands of visitors each year.
“When people come to the farm for the first time, you can see they understand what makes this place so special,” he said. “Whether you are a child with special needs, a person dealing with mental health issues or just someone who wants to connect with nature, everyone is welcome here. We are proud that the farm is a place where all people feel included and accepted.”
The Burneys have been steadily implementing programs for the farm and hope to one day no longer rely heavily on grants to remain open.
They instituted admission fees, offer farm animal “sponsorships,” provide riding lessons, feature a general store and welcome thousands of holiday revelers at its annual “Old Fashioned Christmas on the Farm and Light Show” fundraiser, going on through December 23. Proceeds from the holiday event – the farm’s largest annual fundraiser – help maintain farm operations during the winter months when it is closed to the public.
Besides the tremendous generosity of Harris, the farm relies on 200 volunteers to handle the work. Countless tasks are involved in the seven-day-a-week operation that, at any point, may be hosting a birthday party, guiding a class trip through the indoor petting zoo, coordinating therapeutic horse riding lessons for veterans or driving a barrel train through the property as children squeal in delight.
The Burneys have worked with community partners to build a veterans’ memorial and the Rami’s Heart COVID-19 Memorial. They are now working on a building that would include a commercial-grade teaching kitchen as another initiative to provide on-site job training for the populations they serve.
With a commitment to be accessible to all, the Burneys have also created a “Path of Independence,” ensuring buildings and gardens on the property are accessible to people with mobility challenges.
“Everyone should be able to enjoy this farm,” Sean Burney said. “So, we have considered obstacles and are working on ways to make this farm accessible to as many people as possible.”
The farm also partners with 13 area high schools, assisting students with special needs. Under the Growing Academics in Nature (GAIN) program, the students are given a work-based learning experience, with such tasks as planting, harvesting, animal care, egg collection and groundskeeping.
Click here to learn more about the farm and the many ways in which the Golden Dome Foundation has turned dreams into reality. Make sure to sign up for the farm’s monthly newsletter.
Mary Ellen Harris visits with the Burneys at the Allaire Community Farm in Wall.