Nonprofit offers a lifeline of hope for ill children

Children with life-threatening illnesses visit rescued animals from tortoises to horses in the mountains above Malibu through the Chai Lifeline program.

By Meg Boberg / Special to The Malibu Times

Any child would welcome the opportunity to ride a pony, pet a goat or feed a donkey, especially those facing a life-threatening pediatric illness. Providing happy childhood experiences is at the core of the Chai Lifeline program, an international nonprofit organization that offers free year-round programs and services, such as Camp Simcha Special catering to children with pediatric cancer.

Hope Ranch Animal Rescue in Malibu set the scene for one of Chai Lifeline’s activities on Sunday afternoon. More than a dozen families attended the “Horsing Around” event for a stress-free day.

The 80-acre ranch on Encinal Canyon in the Santa Monica Mountains is home to a variety of rescued animals, which are provided shelter, rehabilitation and adoption. More than 100 animals live on the ranch, including horses, llamas, sheep, pheasants, lovebirds, chickens, emus, cows and tortoises. Many of them have been abused and neglected.

With the help of 25 volunteers, Hope Ranch founder Lori Morris said she was thrilled to donate the time and facilities to give the children an experience to carry them through their daily struggles. Additional volunteers from Chai Lifeline provided a shuttle service, lunch and clean up.

“Families here are all dealing with illness of one kind or another, so to be able to come out to a place like this is a little bit of a respite, a bit of a break from what they’re going through every day,” Randi Grossman, director of Chai Lifeline West Coast, said. “Hope Ranch provides a thrilling day to be out with nature and it’s something very special to connect with the animals.”

Sitting at a table with other parents and their children, Sharon Silkes-Bader remembered her reaction to her 3-year-old daughter Maya’s leukemia diagnosis.

“Your whole life is turned upside down,” Silkes-Bader said. “One morning you have a beautiful healthy child, and by that afternoon you’re sitting there getting blood out of her veins, they’re calling up nurses from the ER and there are transfusions.”

The support of her synagogue and a recommendation from her husband’s cousin directed Silkes-Bader to Chai Lifeline. The array of services offered to her family both in and outside of the hospital helped the Bader family cope with the fight against the sudden change in their lives.

Some of the services offered include counseling, meals, hospital visits, retreats, crisis intervention and bereavement services. As a break from the hospital, fun activities are provided as well, including trips to Dodger Stadium, a spa day treated to the mothers, and volunteer Big Brothers and Big Sisters assigned both to ill children and their siblings.

“They’re pretty amazing children, you could look at them and not know what they go through … you give them their chemo, and then when they get out of the hospital they want to go play,” Silkes-Bader said. “All of these kids here, they all have their own story and they’ve all been through hell and back, and they keep going.”

Jake Hytken, 22, first became involved with Chai Lifeline at age 13 when he started using a wheelchair for muscular dystrophy. After some convincing that he needed to address the denial he felt about his disability, Hytken joined the summer camp offered by the organization.

Since then, Hytken continues to come to events as often as possible, since he wants to be a role model for other children so they know they can pursue their goals despite their disabilities. Hytken is enrolled at California State University Northridge where he lives independently and studies communications, and credits Chai Lifeline for encouraging him.

“A lot of these kids don’t get to see these things, don’t get to travel, let alone get out of their house,” Hytken said. “Not only do they get out of their rooms today, where they often are spending a lot of time in their beds, they’re getting to play with animals and see the scenery that they’re not used to, and it’s nostalgic and it’s a way of life they’re normally not exposed to.”

More information about Chai Lifeline can be obtained by calling 310.274.6331 or online More information about Hope Ranch Animal Rescue can be obtained by calling 310.457.0213 or online at

The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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