Lake Villa’s Susanna Farms brings together community, nature and animals

Read to the Animals event offers children chance to read without pressure

LAKE VILLA – Jaclynn Drehobl struggles to get her 10-year-old son Zakary to read at home.

With his hand on Peanut, one of several horses at Susanna Farms in Lake Villa, Zakary read an entire book.

“He absolutely loved it,” Drehobl said. “He didn’t complain once about reading, which is unusual for him.”

Since the Antioch mother discovered Susanna Farms through social media, she’s taken Zakary to several programs at the farm, including a spring break camp and therapeutic activities with equines. Like those experiences, the farm’s recent Read Aloud to the Animals didn’t disappoint.

Led by Laura Heffernan, the program – involving not only horses, but goats, a donkey and baby chicks and ducks – takes the pressure off children.

“Children tend to read better and with more confidence when they’re reading to an animal,” Heffernan said. “They can just relax and read. Some kids just love it. They just want to see the animals and have something fun to do.”

Heffernan co-owns Susanna Farms ( with her sister, Elizabeth Heffernan. Originally owned by their grandparents, Steven Jennings and Mae O’Bryan – who named the farm after each of their mothers, Susan and Anna – the farm has been in the family since the 1930s.

Today, the farm at 24153 W. Townline Road in Lake Villa serves as a space for community events and activities.

Along with camps, therapeutic riding lessons and general riding lessons, Susanna Farms hosts programs such as stress management with herbs, teddy bear picnics and music parades, drop-ins on the farm, canvas painting on the farm, yoga, drum healing and vibration circles and more.

Susanna Farms welcomes private events, including birthday, graduation and wedding parties.

As the farm’s use has evolved through the years, the family’s roots have remained. Although their grandfather died before they were born, Laura and Elizabeth Heffernan aim to carry on his legacy.

“When you hear stories of him, they’re always about his generosity and being available and making the farm more like a family,” said Elizabeth Heffernan, who has a home in New Hampshire, but frequently lives at the Lake Villa farm. She calls both home.

Her grandfather was known for his kindness and openness, she said.

“That’s the thing we strive to offer to the community is a place we can have events that are open to everyone to just find the peace and tranquility that is there,” she said. “It’s a great honor to carry on our grandfather’s tradition and the tradition of our parents who instilled in us the desire to carry on kindness to future generations.”

In the early 2000s, several of the grandchildren reimagined the farm as a space for a fall festival. The farm closed to the public in 2014 and reopened in 2019 with Laura and Elizabeth Heffernan at the helm.

Two of 11 siblings, the sisters bought out their siblings to take over the farm and offer equine-assisted activities, small events, camps and year-round fun.

Certified as a therapeutic horse-riding instructor through Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International, Laura Heffernan heads up the day-to-day lessons and activities at the farm.

“We are looking to create a space for people in our community to interact with nature and with animals in a way that supports their physical, mental and emotional well-being,” said Laura Heffernan, an avid supporter of a global 1000 Hours Outside campaign to get children away from media and screens more often and into the outdoors.

All ages and abilities are welcome at the farm’s programs. Laura Heffernan personalizes the lessons and activities to make them appropriate for each participant, ensuring that the needs of all are met. Some participants have mental health or physical health diagnoses and benefit from the programs.

“Seeing kids light up, seeing them reach milestones, I can see it every day. I can see it having an impact on people’s lives,” Laura Heffernan said.

“This space we are in the world right now – there’s a lot of anxiety and tension – people, when they come here, value and feel good about spending time outside and connecting with the animals. It definitely improves people’s physical and mental being,” she said.

When Zakary Drehobl first came for a horse therapy camp, he would not ride the horse, his mother Jaclynn Drehobl said. He’d walk next to them and groom them.

The last day of camp, he rode a horse. A year and a half later, he rides one of the tallest horses at the farm.

“It’s just so amazing,” Jaclynn Drehobl said. “She teaches them not only to respond with the animals, but she’s taught my son if he has anxiety or is scared about things how to breathe. … It’s just kind of sweet. He’ll take what she says and bring it either to school or home and kind of ease his anxiety.”

Like many, Melissa Forsberg discovered the farm while looking for a place to take her 10-year-old daughter Emily for riding lessons.

She liked the flexibility Laura Heffernan offered, she said, and Emily fell in love with both the horses and Heffernan.

“It’s her safe place there at the farm,” Forsberg said. “The thing I love is [Heffernan] is so good with the kids. If they’re struggling with learning something, she’s incredibly patient and she works with them until they get it.”