Unlocking Potential

Fair Oaks campus helps neurodiverse adults thrive

By Jessica Laskey
March 2024

Kristy Venrick-Mardon brings bunnies and goats from Only Sunshine Sanctuary, her Elverta animal rescue, to interact with students at Meristem. But it’s not just playtime.

It’s a way for Meristem’s young adults with autism and other neurodiversity to master new skills.

“The students learn how to interact calmly and not stress out the animals,” says Venrick-Mardon, who founded her animal sanctuary in 2018. “At first, every student wanted to touch every animal. Now, they’re more patient and check in with the animal to make sure it’s comfortable.”

Venrick-Mardon didn’t intend to start a sanctuary. When she bought her house 11 years ago, she just wanted it filled with animals.

After rescuing a pig named Harold from the Sacramento SPCA, her menagerie grew. Today, Only Sunshine has 40 permanent residents and up to 65 animals, mostly rabbits.

Venrick-Mardon nurses them back to health for adoption and brings her boarders to educational meet-and-greets at programs such as Meristem.

“Animals are so therapeutic, and it pairs well with our program that has a unique focus on working with the land and taking care of animals and crafting or working with your hands as part of our therapeutic educational model,” says Nancy Pryor, Meristem’s grants specialist.

Monthly visits by Only Sunshine animals are part of the “Meristem Method,” a five-stage learning process based on a European model that uses experiential learning to unlock a person’s potential.

For three years, students engage in activities that encourage skills to enter the workforce or pursue higher education, transition to independence, enhance social capacity and gain a strong sense of self.

Founded in 2015, Meristem focuses on adults ages 18–26. The 13-acre campus in Fair Oaks has 60 dorm rooms and apartments, multiple classrooms, a performance hall, café, dining hall, student lounge, bookstore and biodynamic organic garden.

Some students live off-campus and participate in day programs. Most choose to live on-campus and take advantage of an independent living program.

Meristem provides classes on topics that include visual arts, culinary arts, work experience, land stewardship, job readiness and hospitality.

Courses are supplemented with outings and visits from Only Sunshine Sanctuary’s rescue animals, therapy dogs from Lend a Heart Animal Assisted Therapy and more.

Organizations and friends give time and skills. REY Engineers helped rebuild the chicken coop. An Eagle Scout built picnic tables for meals and socializing.

Meristem is supported by donations. In December, the organization received a $1 million matching pledge from the Eggert family to establish an endowment at the Sacramento Region Community Foundation in honor of their daughter Caroline, a Meristem graduate who went onto full-time employment.

The program hopes to raise $2 million over four years with matching donations.

“Meristem changed our daughter Caroline’s life,” Pam and Steve Eggert said in the donation announcement. “With your help, Meristem will change the lives of other young adults right here in our own local community.”

For information, visit onlysunshinesanctuary.org and meristem.pro.
Jessica Laskey can be reached at jessrlaskey@gmail.com. Follow us on Facebook and Instagram: @insidesacramento.

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