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Pandemic puts strain on farm sanctuary

Lauralee Blanchard, president and founder of Leilani Farm Sanctuary in Haiku, smiles with a goose. She hopes to keep the safe haven open and operational despite the challenges brought by declining visitor and volunteer rates at the farm due to the COVID-19 pandemic. MARK TAYLOR photo

In the heart of Haiku sits a safe haven where hundreds of animals have received refuge and where visitors have been able to engage and learn.

But uncertainty grows as the COVID-19 pandemic challenges the Leilani Farm Sanctuary to keep the gates open as visitor numbers drop due to travel warnings and other restrictions.

Located on 8 acres of green fields and garden beds, the sanctuary is home to rescued goats, donkeys, rabbits, ducks, deer, cats, pigs, sheep, geese, guinea pigs, a cow, and more, but “whether or not the sanctuary remains open to visitors will depend on which direction the pandemic goes,” said founder and President Laurelee Blanchard on Sunday.

For decades, Leilani Farm Sanctuary has been a volunteer-based nonprofit dedicated to providing care and support for rescued animals and humane education to the community.

“The animals thrive on attention from visitors and we love sharing this magical place with people,” Blanchard said. “It is also important for us to fulfill our mission of providing humane education to the community.”

Vicki Levin holds a chicken while touring Leilani Farm Sanctuary. Lauralee Blanchard photo

Farm tours, which run every Monday, Wednesday and Saturday, are a major source of funding for food, shelter, and veterinary care for the animals as well as maintenance for the sanctuary infrastructure, she said.

Costs are “substantial” adding up to about $1,000 per week just on food and thousands more for emergency rescue cases.

Last week, Blanchard said that they initiated an emergency appeal for donations in which people can help in three ways as the farm struggles to stay open. Such as, enrolling to make a monthly contribution, sponsoring one or more animals, or making a one-time donation.

“We are most grateful for small donations, and always hope for the miracle of a large donor,” she said.

The biggest challenge in running the sanctuary during the pandemic has been “receiving cancellations of farm tours and the reduction of bookings from visitors who would have come if not for the pandemic,” she said.

Leilani Farm Sanctuary is also an educational facility that aims to teach keiki and adults about animals “in a way that changes their perspective about themselves and the world around them,” according to the website.

It also shows that every living being needs food, water, shelter, and love.

Blanchard said they have continued hosting the farm education programs through most of the pandemic, such as animal-assisted therapy for special-needs visitors, and volunteer activities for youth groups while adhering to all public health mandates.

However, they did go many months without being able to hold farm tours at the start of the pandemic in 2020. When the number of COVID-19 cases started to drop earlier this year, visitors flocked to the sanctuary.

But, local businesses and nonprofits continue to feel the brunt of ever-changing rule changes.

And then when Hawaii Gov. David Ige announced last month recommending visitors to delay vacations through the end of October, there have been 26 farm tour cancellations thus far.

“It appeared we were on the road to recovery. But, because of the delta variant surge, hospitals in the islands began buckling under the weight of new COVID-19 cases, prompting Hawaii’s governor to advise that visitors not travel to the state until it is safe,” she said. “The future is unknown, which can be frightening given the number of beings depending on us.”

Prior to the delta variant surge, the farm was holding five tours a week. The number of tours has been reduced to three per week with “sparse attendance.”

“Those who have canceled their visits due to the pandemic were disappointed,” she said. “For many of them, visiting Leilani Farm Sanctuary was to have been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

There have been several instances where people have visited and were “so inspired by their experiences” at Leilani Farm Sanctuary that they went on to start sanctuaries of their own in other parts of the country, Blanchard said.

About 85 percent of visitors to the farm are typically tourists. A significant percentage of volunteers are also out-of-state visitors, so the decline in helping hands has been “another major challenge.”

However, she noted that “we have a wonderful team of dedicated volunteers who contribute in a myriad of ways‚” and remains hopeful that she can keep the farm open.

Regular volunteer days are 9 a.m. on Mondays and Wednesdays.

For more information about Leilani Farm Sanctuary, visit https://leilanifarmsanctuary.org.

* Dakota Grossman can be reached at dgrossman@mauinews.com.

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