Another former employee chiming in. I worked at Spence's Farm for one summer many years ago, and so I can't speak to all of the allegations in the article (e.g., we never climbed Occoneechee Mt.).
I will say, however, that at least some of the claims in the article are misleading and overblown. We did go to the Eno River weekly and kids were encouraged (in a supervised environment) to touch wild, non-venomous river snakes. It was remarkable how quickly the snakes could adapt to being held if the counselor (and eventually) children remained calm, but once or twice someone got bitten. They were told to stay calm, not rip the snake out (which would do far more damage than the actual bite), and wait for the snake to retract its head. It may sound horrifying (it certainly did to me at first), but really it wasnot a huge deal at all - horsefly bites and bee stings were FAR more painful than any of these bites were.
At no point did I witness Spence encouraging the kids to do anything dangerous involving the horses. The kids I watched (the youngest, 5-6 year olds) always wore helmets and were led by a counselor or riding instructor who held the reins. I understand from reading the comments that some disapprove of the way his more recent employees supervise the children, and it's certainly possible that there are less diligent staff members than when I was there. BUT it's hard to blame Spence for this UNLESS I knew that a) the accusations of negligence were true b) parents confronted him about the staff's negligent behavior and c) Spence did nothing to address the problem. If that is the case, then Spence can fairly be held accountable, but I haven't heard that in the discussion.
Finally, as many have mentioned, Spence is very colorful and occasionally odd character, but never did I witness him acting in a way that seemed predatory or malicious (which seems to be the insinuation of the remark about him on the phone with the 5 year-old hugging him). There is no excusing inappropriate behavior, and the whole situation involving the two women who felt sexually threatened is not something I can fairly comment on without more information. BUT I will say that he was kind and supportive and NOT creepy with the children or female staff while I was there.
Spence's philosophy on child development and education can seem kooky and there were occasions where I feel I would have acted differently than he did, but never to such an extent that I considered quitting or accusing him of negligence. And I do understand the reservations many have about his commitment to having children face their fears and interact with the natural world in ways that seem dangerous (e.g., snakes) to those who live in more safe-guarded, suburban lifestyle (among which I freely include myself). Overall, however, I think Spence offers the community a valuable and enriching experience for those who want to let their children see the world, even it means they might get more scrapes, stings, and, yes, maybe even a snake bite than if they had stayed indoors. Whether or not parents feel comfortable letting their children participating in such activities is entirely up to them, and as a new parent I have learned NEVER to question another parent when they are acting in the interest of their child's safety and well-being. As for me, I would be comfortable sending my daughter to Spence's Farm when she gets older, as I think the positive values and experiences she would receive would outweigh some of those fears my inner protective father might feel.
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Indy Week • 201 W. Main St., Suite 101, Durham, NC 27701 • phone 919-286-1972 • fax 919-286-4274
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