Sandy D’Amico: ‘I didn’t really even know what an alpaca was’

D’Amico and Harwood volunteer at Island Alpaca Co. of Martha’s Vineyard.

Pam Harwood and Coco the alpaca — Courtesy Pam Harwood

The beloved alpaca farm on the Edgartown–Vineyard Haven Road, formally known as Island Alpaca Co. of Martha’s Vineyard, loves its volunteers. The farm, with a select herd of 35 colorful Huacaya alpacas, offers breeding, sales, boarding, education, and continuing customer support. With so much going on, it’s no wonder owner Barbara Ronchetti says she is always thrilled to have volunteers: “Any help is always welcome, because there are many projects to do at the farm.” After all, it takes people power to tend to these endearing animals. Just some of what needs to get done is making sure they have clean, fresh water; topping off the hay; and pasture raking.

One of Ronchetti’s current volunteers, Sandy D’Amico, actually began as an employee. She knew nothing about alpacas when she answered an ad in 2007. “I didn’t really even know what an alpaca was,” D’Amico reports. But her interest was piqued, and at the time, she was taking a break from her profession in nursing. D’Amico continued to alternate between working at Island Alpaca and nursing until she retired from the profession in 2017, at which point, she went back to working at the farm for a year. D’Amico says, “Then I took some time off, and I really missed the animals and the people who worked there, so I volunteered. It’s a really good place to put your head because animals are very Zen-like.”

D’Amico clearly enjoys interacting with the alpacas, saying, “I love spending time with them, they’re great animals.” One of her jobs is to halter-train them so they can be led from one place to another, when folks come to take them for a walk, and also if you are bringing them into a show ring. While you need to work with the older ones, so they don’t forget, it’s working with the babies or crias that she loves most. D’Amico says, “I halter-train the little ones to walk, like on a leash almost. They resist this a great deal, so it takes time to get them used to wearing one and to walk where you want them to go.”

With a particular love for these guys, witnessing their birth is very special for her. D’Amico says, “The first time, I think it was my first day. The pregnant females were down in a small barn, and I walked down to feed them. I was surprised there was an alpaca giving birth, and I ran back and said, ‘There’s a baby coming!’ The crias stand up almost right away. It usually takes them about a half-hour, and then they’re hopping all over the place. The mothers are very attentive to them, which is nice.” But bar none, D’Amico says, “The animals’ trust is the best part of volunteering.”

Whereas D’Amico went from employee to volunteer, Pam Harwood went from volunteer to employee. She came with extensive experience, having had an alpaca farm for 13 years in Maine. But she and her husband Hugh sold the farm when they semi-retired. When Hugh took a job at Martha’s Vineyard Hospital in January 2018, the couple came to the Island. Knowing there was an alpaca farm, Harwood called up Ronchetti. She says, “Having never met her before, ‘I said I’d love to come scoop poop.’ I love the animals, being outside, the physical exercise, and the tours. Barbara said, ‘Sure, come on over.’”

Harwood volunteered regularly, and helped give the alpacas monthly shots to prevent a meningeal parasite from infecting their bodies and brain. She says, “I’ve taught the people who work there now how to do it.” Harwood has also shown them how to cut the alpacas’ toenails, as well as different ways to handle the animals. Harwood explains, “For instance, you can put a halter on an animal, but if it doesn’t fit right, the alpaca will act up. If it’s properly fitted, and you give a very light touch holding the end, they will respond to that and move forward. If you try tugging them, they’ll dig in with all four feet and say, ‘Nope, not going to do it.’” Harwood adds about sharing her knowledge, “That’s something I enjoy, mentoring some of the younger kids.”

As a certified fiber sorter, Harwood was also involved in shearing day, helping Ronchetti evaluate the fleeces and in deciding which animals can go into a show and which for yarn. Harwood explains, “After that, she said, ‘Can I hire you?’” — and the rest is history.
Of her time at Island Alpaca, Harwood says, “I’ve met people who have become my friends over the years; the volunteering helped me to start building a new community. To volunteer is to meet people, have a purpose to your day, a reason to get up and out … and to feel like you’re doing something.”

Ronchetti says, “We always welcome volunteers as long as we can have them more than one day. And having local people around is always nice. They become part of the farm family.” So, this winter, if you have a day or two, or more a month, and want to commune with some very special creatures, a great crew, and get some outdoor exercise … you know you have a great option.

For more information about volunteering, call 508-693-5554. For more information about Island Alpaca Co. of Martha’s Vineyard, visit