An Ostrich peaks over a fence at Children’s Nature Retreat. Photo by Mimi Pollack

By Mimi Pollack

Giving back to others is always good, but when you can give back to both animals and children, that is even better! Local humanitarian Agnes Barrelet is doing just that by heading up two nonprofits, Hands United for Children and Children’s Nature Retreat.

The Children’s Nature Retreat in Alpine is a haven for all kinds of animals, including two zebras, four Friesian horses, African cows, mules, donkeys, rabbits, mini horses, goats, pigs, ostriches and desert tortoises. There are over 95 domesticated animals with 17 species and 38 breeds from around the world. They all live comfortably on a 20-acre property. There are several animal enclosures, including Barnyard Alley, Tortoise Landing, African Grasslands, and Mini and Big Farms. In African Grasslands, for example, you will see the two zebras with several ostriches.

One thing that struck me was how friendly most of the animals are, which makes this place especially suitable for children. Barrelet opened the retreat late last year with the goal of providing a place in the countryside where city — especially inner-city — children can experience the beauty that nature has to offer as well as interact with the animals and learn about them. She wants them to feel a connection that will last. The retreat is working with local schools and organizations to help fund free field trips for schools and children that normally would not be able to pay for them.

Agnes Barrelet (second from right) and her team.

This is where Hands United for Children comes in. This non-profit strives to help children in many ways. First, it helps to fund the field trips and bring joy to the lives of underprivileged children. Second, it opened a dental clinic on the campus of the O’Farrell Charter School in Southeast San Diego. The clinic will serve the children who attend this charter school free of charge. Barrelet is on the school’s board.

Finally, there is the Hands United for Children Preschool in Burkina Faso, a country in West Africa. The preschool educates and feeds up to 120 children in remote villages. They also sponsor 39 middle and high school students. In January 2016, a nursery was added, so that many of the mothers would have a place to leave their babies while working in the fields and factories as Burkina Faso is where most of the world’s shea butter is produced.

So where does the money come to fund all of this? Donations are always welcome and, once a year, they have a big fundraiser. This year the Hands United for Children 6th Annual Fundraiser Gala will be on May 19 at Viejas Casino from 6:30 p.m. to 10 p.m.. More information is available online.

Behind all this good work is Barrelet herself. She is steadfast in her desire to bring happiness into the lives of others, especially children, and to help animals. Born in Nimes, France, she came to the United States in 1993 to get a degree in business administration.  She and her former husband moved to La Jolla in 1995. She fell in love with La Jolla because it reminded her of the south of France. Together, they ran a very successful Internet company, WebSideStory, that analyzed traffic to websites. They divorced in 2011 and Barrelet sold her shares.

She and her 14-year-old daughter, Vanessa, now live at the retreat, and many times nurse a sick or injured animal themselves at their home. They also live with three dogs, a cockatoo, various turtles and a giant bearded dragon.

During the interview, she told me it was the movie “We Bought a Zoo,” starring Matt Damon, that inspired her to open this animal sanctuary. Today, working together with several experienced ranch hands and animal handlers, this inspiration has become a reality.

For more information, the retreat’s website is ChildrensNatureRetreat.com.


Mimi Pollack is an English as a Second Language teacher at Grossmont College and a freelance writer.

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