ZIONSVILLE — At Canterbury Manor Stables, Anderson Vestel spends his weeknights letting out horses, giving them water and cleaning up the stalls.
"There's some horses that are closer to me than others," Anderson said.
His favorite horse is Doc.
"On the first day, me and him connected because he's always out there and trying to be pet and stuff," Anderson said.
Anderson is an intern with Ben's Ranch Foundation.
"We help youth struggling with mental health issues by connecting them to jobs and other experiences on farms, stables and outdoor facilities like Conner Prairie or local parks," Brose McVey, Executive Director and Founder of Ben's Ranch, said.
McVey saw the impact working with horses had on his own son, Ben.
"It was so good for him it sort of reset his life," McVey said.
Ben battled bipolar disorder for 10 years. McVey says the only thing that changed his son's life for the better was an 18 month stay in Wyoming, working with horses.
"So the minute we lost him, we knew that experience was so powerful. We kind of wanted to bottle it for other kids," McVey said.
Ben died at just 24-years-old from an accidental fentanyl overdose.
Now, in his memory, the Ben's Ranch Foundation is helping teenagers ages 14 to 18 struggling with their mental health.
"Anderson, I think like most teens, has probably a little trouble with depression and anxiety," Naomi Vestel, Anderson's mom, said. "At the end of eighth grade, we had an incident at school where Andy's depression had gotten the better of him. He decided to make a plan to harm himself and that was discovered by a couple of his classmates."
As Anderson waited to get into therapy, his school counselor referred him to the Ben's Ranch Foundation.
The internship program pays teens like Anderson to work at local stables and farms, where they are able to relieve stress, build confidence and learn new skills.
"It's helped me focus more on my studies instead of these feelings that I've been having," Anderson said. "I think being around the horses has really helped with connecting with them."
"They're non judgmental and they have a huge instinct," McVey said about the horses. "Someone who walks into their space, depressed or hurting or angryy, they know it and they sense it. Working with them gives the kids a chance not to be judged, but also to feel important as they care for them."
It's these connections that Anderson says is helping him work through the feelings he's been having.
"In school we have our little cliques. I think being out here, it's just one giant friend group that everyone knows what we're going through and we all can help each other with what we're struggling with," Anderson said.
"Now that he's been in the program for almost two years, there's just been a huge change in his self esteem and how he interacts with others," Naomi said. "He's in such a good place now that I have no worries about any further incidents."
Now Ben's ranch is launching small group and school based programming to reach even more teens in central Indiana.
"If the kids are not emotionally or physically ready for the rigors of an internship, it's not only a way to develop those skills and confidence, but it's also another route for some kids that are not confident around livestock or just not ready emotionally for it," McVey said.
Ben's Ranch Foundation relies on farms and stables in the community. They are currently looking for more places that want to partner with the organization.
As far as the impact, McVey says it's hard to explain what it means to him to do this work in honor of his son.
"When we see somebody like Andy, who's been helped, we see the smile on these kids faces, and how quickly this can help them. We know he's pretty proud," he said.