This is not a petting zoo. It is set up for education, relaxation, and connecting with nature. The vision of owner Agnes Barrelet, founder for Hands United for Children that supports underprivileged children in the U.S. and Africa, the Children’s Nature Retreat in Alpine is now a branch of her dream for children. With 20-acres of beautiful Alpine terrain, it is a safe haven to domestic, livestock and equine animals from around the world.
This is not a petting zoo. It is set up for education, relaxation, and connecting with nature. The vision of owner Agnes Barrelet, founder for Hands United for Children that supports underprivileged children in the U.S. and Africa, the Children’s Nature Retreat in Alpine is now a branch of her dream for children. With 20-acres of beautiful Alpine terrain, it is a safe haven to domestic, livestock and equine animals from around the world. Still in building process, it is now open to the public and Barrelet is working with different organizations in the county to make this a go-to destination for children that might not have the chance to see some of its variety of exotic animals.
This retreat, which Barrelet calls a “safe haven” for animals, children and adults, has been in the process of building since 2015. With more than 80 domesticated livestock from around the world, Barrelet has rescued zebras, camels, Nigerian goats, ostriches, alpacas, Friesian horses, African cattle and much more, with much more to come as the Retreat expands.
Kismit Henderson, Children’s Nature Retreat marketing and community relations said that Barrelet has a heart larger than life. She gave one of its animals as an example. Neopolitan, a Huacaya and Suri alpaca mix that came to the retreat as an example of how Barrelet will do anything she can to save these animals and give them a productive and long life.
“There is a particular alpaca that is blind,” she said. “He came, and the vet said he should be put down. He didn’t have any hair on his back, he had pneumonia, coughing up blood and it was touch and go night by night. But now, he has sired the other alpaca and has another on the way. That is how Agnes is. She does not take no for an answer and will do everything in her power to save these animals and make them productive in an interactive educational way.”
Barrelet said the idea of the Retreat came when she saw the movie “We bought a zoo.”
“I thought, ‘Oh my gosh! It’s possible to do that in the U.S.?” she said. Especially coming from the south of France. “I would dream to have a place like that.”
Barrelet started out small when she met a lady who was rescuing zebras and different types of animals and she needed more space. She thought that was something she could do.
“I have my non-profit (HUFC) that takes care of children with education, health and arts and I thought maybe I could bring both together,” she said. “It didn’t really work out with this person, but I decided to continue with the idea myself. Bring the animals in and then bring in the children. There are tons of animals that need a home already. Most of our animals have been rescued or are babies of rescued animals.”
HUFC has a nursery and a preschool in Africa, so that is why the Retreat has the African animals, because she wants to bring together what it does here in the U.S. HUFC has a dental clinic in Southeast San Diego, serving 1,400 children for free and Barrelet said she was still missing something. “The Children’s Nature Retreat was it. Now I feel complete,” she said.
Animals are coming from all over, from rescues, from zoos, and other facilities that are overcrowded, have moved or no longer could take care of these animals. The Retreat’s Friesian horses have had two babies since received. They are from the Netherlands and in history were used as warhorses.
The Children’s Nature Retreat is designed for children and adults, but with different motives. For the children it is for them to discover the animal kingdom and nature.
“I want them to have the ability to learn about the animals, not be afraid of them, learn how to feed them, how they behave during the day and in their natural habitat, with whom they are living with,” said Barrelet.
She said for the adults, she did it for them to find peace.
“I believe we all lead stressful lives and we may or may not have many problems of all kinds,” she said. “But when you are at this place and you look at the animals, pet them feed them, you forget about everything else. That’s what I want to bring to them. A piece of heaven—a piece of serenity in their life. I hope that they spend the day and think about what they want to do, where they are at, if they can change something in their life by giving them the opportunity to relax and sit back.”
Barrelet said her next step is to start working with children and adults with disabilities and is currently working with the Scripps Cancer Center to get their patients to come to the Retreat and learn about healthier living. It will be open to field trips. “My non-profit is funding children from underprivileged children, and I am hoping to make more of these connections,” she said.
Hands United 4 Children is having its annual Gala on May 19, at the Viejas Casino & Resort, so Barrelet is hoping to fund more children than last year.
“We had 400 children come here last year for free for our soft opening, and I want to provide this for more children. Some that came last year had never even petted a rabbit, or saw a horse. The look on their faces and the memories that they have are priceless,” she said. “We’ve been building since 2015, and we are still building, but the kids are ready to come, so that’s why we are open and we are ready for the community to come and see what we have created here.”
Children’s Nature Retreat
5179 Japatul Spur Rd., Alpine, CA
Winter: 10:00 a.m. – 4 p.m.
Summer: 10:00 a.m. – 7 p.m.