Alpaca love: Woman's son, animals inspire work with autism
Is it their enormous, fringe-lashed eyes? Or their crooked, silly grins? All Tina Cochran, 46, knows for certain is that when she brought three alpacas home, she fell in love. “They have a really calm aura about them and they make a gentle humming noise when they want attention,” she says.
Now Cochran, her husband, Bob, and their 13-year-old son, Anthony, raise 14 alpacas on 25 acres at the Golden Heartland Alpaca Ranch in Adrian, Mo., 50 miles south of Kansas City.
Cochran’s passion for these intelligent, social creatures has taken her life in a direction she never intended. A life, she admits, once filled with discontent. “I hated it in the corporate world. But I was from the Alex Keaton generation,” she says, referring to the 1980s sitcom Family Ties, which featured a character hyper-focused on earning money. “I learned that what you make a living at is not necessarily what will fulfill you. Unfortunately, that meant pursuing business, accounting and finance.”
To comfort herself, she ate, gaining a significant amount of weight. But her son, at age 10, provided her with an important wake-up call. “Mommy,” he said, “You need to go on The Biggest Loser.”
Cochran joined a weight-loss program and learned to eat differently, scaling back to six small meals a day. She lost 105 pounds in 10 months. “It changed my entire life,” she says. “I also became a certified health coach, which provided me with income when I was laid off from my corporate job.”
It also meant she could work from home and care for her son, who was diagnosed at age 2 with a high-functioning Autism Spectrum Disorder. ASD is a complex developmental disability that causes problems with social interaction and communication, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
“I’m able to go to his school and attend events and open houses. I was able to transition him from elementary school to middle school,” she says.
And Cochran got to spend more time with her alpacas. As a fiber artist who crochets and knits, she at first embraced the idea of shearing and collecting raw fiber. She purchased a spinning wheel. “It’s a romantic idea that sounded really cool,” she says. “But I learned quickly that this is not what I wanted to do. It’s too detail-oriented for me.”
What she does enjoy is sharing her love for alpacas with people who are fascinated to find animals other than cows grazing on the prairie. Alpacas, cousins to the llama, are native to the Andean Mountain range of South America. First, family and friends requested to see them. Then, school groups and the Cub Scouts came. “I didn’t sit down with business plans. People called out of the blue,” she says.
In 2010, to help raise money for the nonprofit organization Autism Speaks, Cochran organized a walk team called “Alpacas for Autism” and people could donate in honor of one of their favorite alpacas on the ranch. She began hosting fundraising events for Camp Encourage, a summer camp for children with ASD. “After this, there was so much demand for programming that it grew on its own,” she says.
In 2011, Cochran founded the nonprofit organization “Alpacas for Autism” to help improve the quality of life for individuals ages 12 and up with ASD by teaching them fiber arts and marketing skills, and using alpacas to improve social skills. They charge no fees but do accept donations. Cochran serves as executive director.
Today, Cochran says she lives a life of joy. “It’s incredibly fulfilling when doing what God calls you to do. Time just flies. I could do it all day long and not ever get tired. And I love watching people’s faces when they meet the alpacas, especially young people’s faces. Alpacas just have these great big eyes that look deep into your soul.”
Alpacas for Autism hosts its first Spring Fling banquet and live auction from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. Friday, April 13 at the Overland Park Marriott, 10800 Metcalf Ave., Overland Park, Kan. All proceeds will benefit the organization, including a summer camp for youth with autism. For information, visit AlpacasForAutism.org.
Did you know: World Autism Day is April 2. According to Autismspeaks.org, autism affects 1 in 110 children and 1 in 70 boys.
Photography by Angela Bond