Julia and Mija nibble bright-orange papaya pellets, hand-fed by visitors who peer into their metal cages in the barn.
The rabbits' thick, fluffy fur is soft, a cushioning cloud that will bring comfort and warmth someday after it is gently brushed away and spun into wool for sweaters or scarves. But now, the two animals -- Julia, a French Angora, and Mija, an English Angora -- and their fuzzy companions bring solace and joy to volunteers and visitors at Angora Gardens in White Oak.
Indeed, there is more to this place than cuddly bunnies.
"No matter who walks through that gate, they are treated with respect," says Loretta Carr, 65, of White Oak, a therapeutic instructor who has worked at the garden farm for more than a decade.
"The people here are the most loving people you'd ever meet."
Angora Gardens, a developmental program offered through Mon Yough Community Services, centers around a century-old farmhouse along Muse Lane in White Oak Park. It provides training and social rehabilitation to anyone who needs to develop or regain skills necessary to live, work and socialize in their community.
The farm's 30 or so volunteers are mentally ill or developmentally disabled consumers in the mental health system who participate in horticultural, art and animal therapy programs. They tend to flowers and vegetable plants in two greenhouses, work in extensive gardens on the four-acre grounds, care for Angora rabbits in the barn, create art projects for sale in the farmhouse gift shop and take visitors on tours offered Tuesdays through Saturdays.
Along the way, they are honing social and life skills.
"They get self-esteem here. They feel this gives them a reason to live because they are giving something back," Carr explains. "They build a family here, and in this place, people don't judge."
James Vogel, 46, of Baldwin, is a volunteer who takes pride in his daily tasks at the farm. He feeds and cares for the rabbits and works in the gardens, but insists that offering tours is his speciality.
Vogel guides visitors around the grounds, through the rabbit barns, past the pond and into the greenhouses, rattling off tidbits of information and historical facts about the property once known as "Galilee." He offers each visitor a bookmark -- a laminated orange construction paper carrot decorated with a green crepe paper tie -- as a souvenir.
There are fruit trees, pines, rhododendrons, azaleas and daisies. Splashes of pink, purple and yellow decorate the flower beds. A cactus garden fills a large, wooden bed. Bits of brightly colored glass and stones embedded in concrete decorate the sidewalk entrance leading to the property and form a large mosaic name sign in the yard.
The site's history dates to 1783, when the government built a block house here to shelter people during confrontations with Indians. The old Rollins Road -- believed to be the predecessor to Muse Lane -- joined Route 30 and the Lincoln Way and was traveled by George Washington and Gen. Edward Braddock.
A settler named Anthony Rollins bought the land from the government and built a cabin and a barn, but the farmhouse wasn't built until John J. Muse bought the property in 1883. Muse also planted the orchard and gardens.
His son, John Muse, who became one of the best known farmers in Western Pennsylvania, lived in the house until his death March 4, 1910, at the age of 77.
In subsequent years, the property and a half dozen neighboring farms were acquired by Allegheny County and combined to become the 810-acre White Oak Park during the late 1960s. It is one of nine in the county's 12,000-acre parks system.
Vogel and his wife, Nicki, 35, come to the farm almost every day. They feel comfortable working with their friends and are grateful to be doing something productive at such a beautiful place.
"The people are real nice here. I'd never go nowhere else but here," Vogel says.
In the greenhouse during a recent morning drizzle, Nicki Vogel, Marlene Beadling, 62, of Elizabeth, and several other volunteers dug their hands into rich, black potting soil to transplant tiny flower seedlings into bigger pots. Intent on their work, they spoke politely to visitors but never stopped moving the blanket flowers from smaller to larger containers.
As they worked, a radio blared music, its beat providing a rhythm for their hands.
"It's really soothing to my nerves. It's therapy for me," says Linda Morgan, 57, of McKeesport, who has volunteered at the farm for about 16 years.
Noreen Fredrick, Mon Yough's executive director, says Angora Gardens -- founded in 1988 -- offers rehabilitation and teaches volunteers important skills in a peaceful, relaxing environment. Some have been able to transfer those skills into jobs at nurseries and garden centers or maintenance positions.
"It's important for them to be part of something," Fredrick says. "There's an atmosphere of acceptance."
Volunteer Gary Suehr, 39, of White Oak turned to Angora Gardens after his recent release from Mayview State Hospital, where he spent two years and three months for mental health treatment and counseling.
The former garden center worker wanted to find a place where he could feel comfortable and productive while making a transition back into society. After discharge from Mayview, he visited the farm and knew immediately it was where he wanted to start over.
"I've received help from the government and I want to give something back," Suehr says, pushing seedlings into moist dirt with his thumbs.
Carr says all of the volunteers who participate in Angora Gardens' developmental programs are referred by their doctor and therapist after a determination that they are able to work with minimal supervision. Then, they are given a tour and introduced to the program, which operates within an annual budget of $150,000, according to Fredrick.
Site leader Bethany Altieri says volunteers range in age from their 20s to 60s, but added that some older individuals have participated in the past. Each is given tasks to perform; some prefer indoor work, while others prefer the outdoor gardens.
"We want them to do everything they can," Altieri says.
Several volunteers prefer the art therapy programs offered at the farm, where they paint, hook rugs, dabble in crafts and make decorations. Items are sold in a neat gift shop adjacent to a kitchen and dining room, where the volunteers share lunches brought from home.
Carr, whose background is in art, painted a woods-themed mural in a first-floor powder room. She guides the volunteers in their work, sometimes tweaking items with special touches before they are sold.
She decorates the walls with the volunteers' handiwork and proudly points out stained-glass windows they designed for panels surrounding the front door.
"They're very creative," she says. "We've had some people come through the program and get training that led to jobs."
Volunteer Jim Scott, 35, of Versailles, spends many hours each week making hooked yarn rugs for sale in the farm's gift shop. Deer, animals, flowers and other themes come to life in his bright patterns.
Scott, who lives with his grandfather and mother, finds comfort at the farm. He has taken his knowledge to his grandfather's house, where he has planted pear trees, grape vines, strawberries, tomatoes, sweet peppers, roses and other flowers.
"I like learning about things and how to grow things and take care of them," he says.
Although the horticulture programs and gardens are popular, the Angora rabbits are the farm's main attraction.
They're kept in cages that hang by chains several feet above the barn's floor to allow proper drainage of their urine and waste. They're clean and plump, fed daily meals of alfalfa with occasional treats, such as the papaya pellets.
Carr says the English Angoras have fluffy ears and hair that grows down over their faces. The French Angoras, a few pounds heavier than the English, have smooth, clean faces.
When their fur becomes long and thick, it loosens and is brushed away by volunteers. After it is removed, the fur is sent to spinners who make Angora yarn that Carr says is about "the lightest and warmest fiber you can find."
Some of the yarn is combined with yarn made from the hair of Angora goats and fashioned into soft, but sturdy, felt.
Fredrick says the farm's initial mission was to raise the rabbits for their fur as a moneymaking opportunity for the volunteers. To that end, the farm once had 30 rabbits.
However, Carr says that gathering the fur and feeding and caring for the Angoras became too much for her and the volunteers to handle, so the rabbits were phased out through attrition as the focus of the farm turned to the greenhouses and other programs.
Today, it is home to only six.
"We're holding it all together now," Carr says.
The mental health system consumers who volunteer at Angora Gardens aren't the only ones learning from the farm. Through a new partnership between Mon Yough Community Services and McKeesport High School, students come to the farm each week.
Teacher Sara Traeger says the class, offered for the first time this school year, is a three-credit elective. Students participate in hands-on activities, science experiments and projects.
They've worked with plants, watched the effects of dry ice on an outdoor pond and helped with the rabbits. One student painted a garden sign, another created a game called "Angoraopoly," and a third built a garden compost pile, Traeger says.
"They learn about nature and life skills and the greenhouse. It's a pretty neat program," she says. "This place is a treasure that is hidden away in the community.
"It's more than just a bunny farm."…