Local mom finds renewed purpose in rescuing farm animals, helping others

Andrew Pennington holds his son, Evan, as Danielle Judd and a volunteer show him a chicken.
Andrew Pennington holds his son, Evan, as Danielle Judd and a volunteer show him a chicken at FarmHouse Rescue in Trabuco Canyon on Guest of the Farm day on Jan. 29.
(Courtesy of FarmHouse Rescue)

Danielle Judd was in a deep depression in 2017 after nearly dying while pregnant with her third child.

She’d survived bacterial meningitis, which led to sepsis, severe pneumonia and organ failure, that kept her in the hospital for months. Though she and her baby survived, she was left with brain damage, memory loss, seizures, partial hearing and vision loss, and depression.

“I already had depression before, but here I am with this ... brand-new baby, I’m having seizures. I don’t know who my husband is,” said Judd, of Trabuco Canyon. “I was extremely depressed.”


She said her husband asked her when she remembered feeling happy.

“I remembered when I was in Ojai [as a child], I loved having farm animals,” she said. “ I got chickens for my birthday-type thing. Three chickens in an HOA.”

Then came a pig and a horse.

“I was able to rescue this horse that was an off-the-track racehorse,” she said, saying it helped her feel better. She added it was then she realized, ‘Oh, my gosh, we need a farm.’”

Danielle Judd, standing right of horse, joins a family at FarmHouse Rescue in Trabuco Canyon.
A family, farm workers and caregivers gather on a Guest of the Farm day at FarmHouse Rescue in Trabuco Canyon. From the left, standing, are Hannah Kredel-Speer, FarmHouse Rescue owner Danielle Judd, Linda O’Neil, LeeAnn Erwine, Carole Triplett and Krystal Garcia. Tori Erwine is seated in the chair.
(Courtesy of FarmHouse Rescue)

Judd filed FarmHouse Rescue in 2018 as a nonprofit, serving as purely an animal sanctuary between 2017 and 2020, with animals boarded at different facilities. Once she found their Trabuco Canyon farm, a total of 32 acres, they moved there in 2020.

The nonprofit houses 68 rescued farm animals — ranging from a miniature horse and feral cats to chickens, goats and pigs. Once Judd had the property, she started offering the Skill-Building Program that offers adults with physical and cognitive disabilities a chance to learn how to work on a farm, as well as the Smile Box Program. The rescue delivers up to 50 Smile Boxes a month to children going through cancer treatment in hospitals. Each box contains a farm animal plushie, FarmHouse Rescue cap, art projects, toys, cute straw, stickers and a pen pal kit from one of the animals on the farm. Items in the Smile Box are ideas Judd had from her time in the hospital.

Children also get 24/7 access to Smile Cams, broadcasting a live feed of the farm animals, and farm shows scheduled weekly include virtual tours, story times, daily animal feedings and science lessons.

“Really what healed me was the relationship that I had with Lovey [the racehorse] of just talking to her,” she said. “We need to give these boxes, these Smile Boxes, things that I’ve learned when I was in the hospital that will help with infusions and stuff like that. … And then a pen pal letter from Lovey, the horse that rescued me, telling them her favorite colors, her friends on the farm and then a return envelope and a cute, colorful pen and some letterhead. And they write a letter to Lovey and Lovey writes back with her hoof print and introduces them to a new friend on the farm. So like the next one is George Hamilton the Third [a pig]. … We go all around the farm where they write, and it’s like a constant pen pal relationship that they have.”

The Guest of the Farm Program takes it to the next level by hosting visits with the animals.

Five-year-old Evan Pennington feeds a horse with Danielle Judd's help at FarmHouse Rescue.
Five-year-old Evan Pennington, in remission from acute myeloid leukemia, feeds a horse with Danielle Judd’s help at FarmHouse Rescue.
(Courtesy of FarmHouse Rescue)

“Then if they get better, or a lot of times they don’t get better, and they come here for end-of-life wishes, which we call the Guest of the Farm day,” she said. “It’s a day dedicated to them on the farm. We pull out all the stops. We have a big event tent. We do a lunch for up to 20 people. We have a photographer come for them so that way they don’t have to worry about taking pictures. It’s all about just them on the farm because we’re not open to the public. Just having a day. We bring out the goats — they can do goat dress-up. We have different art activities. … It’s all about them that day. And to just have a great day to make memories and just to feel a bit normal just for that moment. And it’s really just so healing for them. … And they get to meet the animals that they’ve written letters to, which is great.”

Andrew Pennington said he heard about FarmHouse Rescue through the NEGU (Never Ever Give Up) childhood cancer foundation in Irvine. His son, Evan, is 5 and was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia last August. Evan is currently in remission and visited FarmHouse Rescue for a Guest of the Farm day on Jan. 29.

“We all looked forward to the visit, knowing how much our kids love animals,” Pennington said. “We had a ton of fun at the FarmHouse. Everyone there was very friendly and great with the kids. When we first arrived kids got to feed animals, which they loved. Evan had so much fun, that he really didn’t want to leave. … The whole experience meant a lot to our family. We all, especially Evan, had been stuck in a hospital room for a while. Seeing the kids so happy and just being kids meant a lot to my wife and I.”

Isabel Moon, of Mission Viejo, said her 33-year-old son, Creig, who has autism, has been working at FarmHouse Rescue since March 2021 as part of the Skill-Building Program.

“Up until then he had been attending a day program in the area,” Moon said. “Creig did not love going to the program and was not progressing with life skills. Once COVID hit and his program became remote, it was not a good situation for Creig.”

Creig Moon takes part in the Skill-Building Program at FarmHouse Rescue helping care for the animals.
(Courtesy of FarmHouse Rescue)

Moon knew Judd from a few years back and saw some posts about the rescue.

“When Creig mentioned that he wished he could work with animals — he has always loved animals and learning about them — I reached out to Danielle and asked if he could volunteer at the farm, as long as he had someone with him,” Moon said. “She was super supportive from the beginning, and a wonderful relationship was born.”

Creig was trained on caring for the animals, for tasks including mucking the stalls, feeding and watering, and learning how to handle the animals in general. Moon said he is now able to perform the work almost independently. He goes to work three days a week, on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, from 9 a.m. to noon.

“This opportunity has been life-changing and something we never dared to even wish for,” Moon said. “Creig has proven to be a really hard worker. Creig’s autism causes him to have quite a bit of sensory sensitivity but he’s able to be in the chicken coop, with cobwebs, birds flying around him making loud noises, all without him being bothered at all. He loves cleaning the nests and retrieving the chickens’ eggs. He is learning the responsibility that comes from having a job, such as being on time and being reliable.”

She said he’s also learning money management skills since he earns a small token wage. He interacts with a lot of different people at the farm, which is improving his social skills, Moon said.

Creig Moon helps clean up at FarmHouse Rescue in Trabuco Canyon as part of the Skill-Building Program.
(Courtesy of FarmHouse Rescue)

“Creig also loves practicing his joke-telling with Danielle,” Moon said. “Overall, we have seen a huge improvement in his social behavior and self-confidence.”

She said either she or his aide drives him to the farm and stays with him in case a situation arises where he needs help.

“As soon as he arrives at the farm, he changes into his rubber work boots and farmer’s hat and gets right to work,” she said. “He starts by mucking the horse stalls and helps with the feeding and watering. Then he moves to the sheep and goat pens and lastly the chickens. He will also do some raking and straightening up of the area as well before he leaves at noon.”

Judd, whose email signature reads, “Be the reason someone smiles,” jokes often when talking about her life — especially when talking about her memory loss. She said that she’ll forget watching specific shows on Netflix, but rewatches them when her husband reminds her she liked them.

“He has a thing that he swears he’s taken me to a hockey game, and I said if there’s no picture, it doesn’t exist,” she said.

Through the smiles, she works hard to reach all the goals she has set for FarmHouse Rescue because she knows the importance of the work she does.

“My biggest fear is that I won’t grow FarmHouse Rescue to what it needs to be by the time that I’ve forgotten what it is,” she said. “I need this to work because it helps so many kids. So it’s a driving force for me, which is actually fantastic. I think it’s helped my brain a lot.”