The sanctuary now houses 20 dogs, 14 cats, eight horses, 32 goats, four rabbits, three tortoises, one parrot, four turkeys, lots of chickens, 18 pigs, and four cows.
When Jamie Wallace-Griner witnessed the incredibly positive impact a 6-year-old service dog named Angel had on her autistic son, Jackson, she realized there was something very special about the bond between a child and an animal. "Angel gave my son confidence and strength beyond anything I was capable of doing as his mother," the 40-year-old told The Washington Post about Angel and Jackson's relationship. "We saw a dramatic difference within weeks. The security of having an animal that understood him and what he was going through changed everything." The big, fluffy Great Pyrenees' effect on her son inspired Wallace-Griner to create a safe space for people and animals with disabilities, special needs, mental health challenges, and traumatic past experiences so that they too could grow to love and accept themselves.
As the first step to fulfill this dream, Wallace-Griner and her husband, David Griner, in 2014 bought an overgrown, unkempt 10-acre ranch where they planned to move their family of five and create a home for neglected animals. Since then, she has rescued and cared for more than 150 animals with a background of abuse, neglect, or special needs at her animal sanctuary, Safe in Austin, in Leander — a suburb just north of Austin.
This space is instrumental in giving a new lease on life to animals that, without Wallace-Griner's intervention, would probably be euthanized. "We have animals that are blind or deaf, have diabetes, cerebral palsy, deformities, missing limbs, broken spines... they all become part of our family," she revealed, adding that they now have "20 dogs, 14 cats, eight horses, 32 goats, four rabbits, three tortoises, one parrot, four turkeys, lots of chickens, 18 pigs, and four cows."
Not long after the ranch opened, friends of friends with special needs children began reaching out with requests to visit the sanctuary. They left with such great memories that they soon had more people visiting the animal residents. "It just kept getting bigger and bigger and I realized that it was time to open up in a way that would help more people and more animals," said Wallace-Griner. "There is something absolutely magical about watching a child with differences come out here and say, 'They're just like me.'"
Although the Griners bore the cost of rescuing and caring for the animals for several years, as veterinary bills, medication, food, and the cost of other supplies mounted, the couple decided to make Safe in Austin a nonprofit organization so as to accept donations. While the suggested donation amount is $25 per family, the ranch also welcomes visitors from financially difficult circumstances for free. "We don’t care about the choices you made in the past, what you look like, who you love, or what you eat. We concentrate on no judgment at all," said Wallace-Griner.
"If anybody emails that is having a hard time for any reason, we invite them out for a healing hearts tour. I ask them for a little background as to what they’re dealing with, and I decide which animals to introduce them to," she added. "COVID is hard on everyone, neurotypical or not, but for special-needs kids it heightens every aspect of what is different about them. A lot of people really needed us during the pandemic."
28-year-old Skylar Carson, who first visited the ranch in need of support, now volunteers five days a week at the sanctuary. "I have a background of childhood trauma," she said, adding that Safe in Austin has played a vital role in her healing. What makes the sanctuary a second home for her, she said, is "the unconditional love, the grace and the freedom to make a difference no matter what your story is — whether you’re a kid or an adult or an animal."
"This is a place for anyone who’s heart is in need of some unconditional love and friendship," chimed in Wallace-Griner.