Suffolk County and Brookhaven Town officials joined representatives from Saddle Rock Ranch in Middle Island Friday to launch a therapeutic recreation program for veterans and their families.
The ribbon-cutting ceremony culminated a four-year effort to expand veterans services at the ranch, said Anita Dowd-Neufeld, a divisional director for Bethpage-based Family Residences and Essential Enterprises, or FREE, which operates Saddle Rock.
"We saw a big need in the community for services for the veterans," Dowd-Neufeld said. "We saw studies from other nonprofits offering this service, and we said, 'Why not us?' This is part of our mission to be able to serve people in the community."
Among its other services that cater to individuals with physical, mental and developmental disabilities such as autism, FREE operates a program that trains an average of 50 participants Monday through Friday in animal care, bed-and-breakfast management, and other work skills.
FREE executives felt it was a good time to publicize their services and reach out to veterans who would benefit, said Anthony Galatro, Saddle Rock's program director.
Veterans can either schedule times to independently visit the ranch, or they can come with a local group.
Members from one of the groups, Suffolk County's Joseph P. Dwyer Veterans Peer Support Project, emphasized the benefits of animal therapy on the mental and emotional health of veterans.
"Literally as soon as . . . [the veterans] get out of their vehicle, they have a smile on their face. It is serene just arriving to this place, let alone interacting with any of these magnificent animals," said Timothy Strobel, coordinator for the Peer Support Project.
More than 80,000 veterans reside in Suffolk County, according to 2012 data compiled by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, making it home to the largest veteran population in the state.
As such, county officials said finding new, effective ways to help them readapt is a high priority.
Brookhaven Town Supervisor Edward P. Romaine applauded the ranch for its initiatives. "Over the years we've made an effort to up our games in terms of veteran services, and Saddle Rock is a great example," he said.