After recovering from a life-threatening illness, Danielle Judd founded Farmhouse Rescue in Trabuco Canyon, an organization dedicated to rescuing animals and allowing them to help people who are going through tough times.
Danielle Judd treks across her 28-acre ranch in Trabuco Canyon after a recent rain. “It’s a mess right now,” she says, shaking her head. But the smile never leaves her face.
Animals poke their heads out of enclosures and over fences as she passes by—dogs, cats, chickens, turkeys, pigs, horses, goats, donkeys, ponies, sheep, ducks, a peacock, and a lone steer, Mr. Patches. “Mr. Patches is not the brightest cow,” Judd says, “He has some brain damage from a lack of oxygen at birth. But he’s a big softie.”
Each one of the animals here was rescued—more than 70 in all since Judd founded Farmhouse Rescue in 2018. But what began as a forever home for animals needing a second chance at life quickly evolved into something much bigger.
In her former life, Judd was a classical pianist. A music teacher. An artist. She owned a fashion and home design company.
“I decorated homes for celebrity clients like Tarek El Moussa and other HGTV stars,” she says.
But it all changed six years ago when Judd was pregnant with her third child. One fall day, she woke up with the worst headache of her life as well as a nosebleed and a stiff neck. She ended up in the emergency room at Mission Hospital and was nearly discharged until a new doctor came on shift. He said he didn’t feel right discharging her and wanted to run a lumbar puncture, the results of which showed she had bacterial meningitis.
“If I had gone home that night, I would have been dead,” Judd says. “As it was, they told me I had a one-in-10 chance of dying. I was in denial that I was actually that sick. I was just in a dream state.”
The bacterial meningitis led to sepsis and kept her in the hospital for two months. Things were further complicated because of her pregnancy.
“The baby was breech. I kept going into early labor. They were telling me that he might not make it. But they couldn’t operate because of the sepsis. I had an extreme feeling of guilt.”
By Christmas, her health had seemingly improved, and she was allowed to go home for a week to be with her family for the holidays. Three days in, she felt an intense pain in her ribs. She had developed severe pneumonia and had to return to the hospital. Because she was pregnant, there were only certain antibiotics she could take, and they didn’t seem to be working. She also couldn’t be fully sedated while her lungs and ears were painfully drained.
“When I started having organ failure, it really hit me that I was about to die,” she says. “And in that moment, I just felt like the most selfish person in the world. I felt like, what did I do with my life? How did I give back to this world? I was working with celebrities. Some of them were not great people. I volunteered at church and school, but it was really for me. I promised God, ‘If I live, I’ll be the most selfless person.’ Plot twist: I lived.”
Judd made a miraculous recovery and delivered a healthy boy, but she had hearing loss and memory loss.
“I didn’t remember the previous five years of my life,” she says. “I remembered my husband, Jonathan, but as this guy I was dating. I didn’t remember my daughter. And I remembered my 13-year-old son, but I remembered him being 8. I didn’t remember how to read sheet music, but I could still play piano from muscle memory. Even now, I still deal with memory loss.”
Though she was out of the woods, Judd says she dealt with serious depression and even had suicidal thoughts after coming home. One day, her husband asked her, “When was the last time you were really happy?”
“All I could think was, I had a horse,” she says. “So we ended up rescuing a retired racehorse. And I realized, the horse is healing me.”
“There’s always a place here for someone to do good.”
The family began to rescue more animals, eventually moving out of their HOA community and into their current home. They’ve rescued dozens of animals since then. But they haven’t stopped there.
“We thought, why don’t we bring in adults with special needs and let them be a part of this?” Judd says. “The animals can help them like they helped me.”
They launched a skill-building program that allows adults with physical and cognitive disabilities to volunteer at Farmhouse Rescue. There are now dozens of volunteers who help. Some work with the animals. Others who prefer to be indoors or have physical limitations aid in office work or with packaging soaps that the nonprofit sells.
“There’s always a place here for someone to do good,” Judd says.
The only paid employee has been a former intern, Hannah Kredel-Speer, who studies agricultural science at Purdue University.
“Something that I’ve learned about Danielle is, when she doesn’t know how to do something, it doesn’t stop her,” Kredel-Speer says. “She doesn’t say, ‘I can’t do this.’ She says, ‘I’ve never done that before; let’s try it!’ What kept me coming back was seeing all these people working hard, and I felt like my skill set with animals was really needed and appreciated here.”
Two years ago, Judd started a new program—Guest of the Farm, where people going through hard times get a day dedicated to making memories.
“We’ve had so many people—kids and adults—who just really needed a whole day where it wasn’t about what they were going through. They come to the farm with their friends and family, and we bring in a photographer and make a memory book for them.”
One such family was the Harrolds. Judd reached out to them after coming across Josh Harrold’s Instagram post about his wife’s battle with brain cancer.
“We just had a magical day at the farm,” Josh says. “I remember my soul was just overwhelmed.”
Adds his wife, Erica: “It made us feel special because she clearly took a look at what was going on in our lives and understood that yes, I’m dealing with something. I was diagnosed with brain cancer nine years ago. But this can be a bright spot in our lives. And her offer actually came at the perfect time.”
Unbeknownst to Judd, the Harrolds were hosting a refugee family from Afghanistan at the time.
“She had them come along, because they also needed a day like this after what they’d been through,” Josh says. “Danielle’s heart is the purest of hearts you’ll ever see. Genuine doesn’t even begin to describe her.”
Judd launched the nonprofit’s latest program, Smile Club, in November. It allows children in hospitals to experience some of the ranch’s magic at their bedside.
“I never felt fully fulfilled until we added this,” she says. “When I was in the hospital, I realized my best friend was the TV. Especially when you’re all alone in the middle of the night, you can’t sleep, doctors are always coming in, and you can’t call anyone. All you have is the TV. And I can only imagine what it’s like for kids in the hospital. So we started the Smile Club.”
There are cameras positioned all around the property that are live-streaming 24/7. When kids sign up for Smile Club, they get a Smile Box with a soft toy, a hat, and a postcard from one of the farm animals. They also get exclusive access to the live feed of the farm, and they can be pen pals with the animals.
“We do story time in the chicken coop,” Judd says, “and sometimes the goats like to dress up in costumes.”
Judd hopes to install more cameras in time, as well as make improvements to the property, such as increasing wheelchair access. But basic operational costs are around $10,000 a month.
“We are doing our best to raise money,” Judd says. “We have amazing donors. We also make some money from our soap and apparel sales. I do this as a labor of love. I don’t get paid a salary, which is unfortunately rare for a nonprofit. If I take on design jobs now, I only do it if they agree to donate to the nonprofit instead of paying me. My husband works full time, and my family has invested everything we have in this.”
Although it’s nonstop work, Judd says it’s worth it for her knowing that Farmhouse Rescue has saved lives.
“Volunteers have told me that before they started working here, they thought about just driving off the road,” she says. “Turning the wheel and ending it all. This gave them purpose. We always say, ‘Our farm grows purpose.’ ”
A sense of purpose: The value of which is something Judd understands from firsthand experience.
“I know in my heart that everything I’m doing is exactly what I’m meant to be doing. If it all ends tomorrow, I know I’m doing the right thing helping people and making the world a better place.”
Tales from Volunteers
“I was delivering hay in Orange County. Danielle was a client for the hay service, and I fell in love with what they were doing. I texted, called, and eventually went up there and put a letter in their mailbox one day asking if I could work for them. I came from a rough place in Compton. I went to prison for a very long time; when I got out, I wanted to change who I was. Danielle helped me get off the streets. She saw something in me. She helped me out with my court process. After a year at Farmhouse Rescue, I moved back to Compton, and I now have my own animal rescue. I do a lot of after-school programs for kids with autism or kids who are troubled. None of that would be possible if it wasn’t for Danielle. She’s really like a second mom to me.”
“It has just been life changing for my son Creig, who has autism. He’s always had an interest in animals. So when Danielle offered for him to start volunteering there a couple of years ago, it was just amazing. He now goes three days a week. It’s made him feel like he can participate in society. He’s excited to get up in the morning. He’s helping the animals. It really broadened his world. He has some sensory issues. To watch him in the chicken coop—he’s in this small little coop with cobwebs and chickens are flying all around him and being noisy, and he’s not fazed at all. He has a hard time communicating, but he’s really gotten close with everyone there. His life has just improved in so many ways, and we’re so grateful.”
—Isabel Moon, mother of volunteer Creig Moon
“I had been looking for a nonprofit to help that involved animals, but because of health issues involving my joints and heart I am unable to do the physical work that it entails. I felt really down about this because I wanted to be able to help. Danielle suggested I could help with the administrative side, which I have many years of experience with, so I thought I would give it a go. She made me feel so welcome and valued from the start, and my one half-day a week turned into pretty much full time as I love being at the farm. I get to be around animals, which really is my happy place. And my mental health, which I have really struggled with in the past, has never been better. I deal with the social media, writing, and fundraising events, and I feel like I have a purpose in my life and am fulfilled like never before. Danielle and the farm have really changed my life for the better.”