Second-chance ranch

"Second-chance ranch" Continued...

Issue: "Effective Compassion," Sept. 1, 2007

One of the goals of the program is to reunite families. If that is not possible, the Ranch campuses function as a long-term home, with children living there an average of five years. During their stay at the Ranches, children receive group counseling and one to two hours of individual counseling a week.

Down the gravel road at the girls' cottage, all but one dinner dish has been cleared. Jennifer Grady is trying to coax her 3-year-old daughter to eat, but little McKenzie just pulls away from a tender piece of roast and reaches for a brownie. Jennifer and her husband Pacer became houseparents in June after praying about it for months. "It's the type of job where you make it your life," she said. "How do you really go off duty when you have children?"

The girls of Gratton Hall struggle with sharing three bathrooms and fight over the phone, but when one of them gets hurt by a boy, all jump to her defense. Brittany says being the oldest is hard because all the younger ones want to borrow clothes and hair items from her. But even though she's 17, Brittany still needed Jennifer when she woke up at three in the morning with a sore throat.

Brittany calls Jennifer "mom," hangs her arms around her neck, and takes a potato slice off her plate. She had lacked such an affectionate relationship with her biological mother. Brittany says her dad held the family together until he died of pancreatic cancer, then "it all fell apart." Her mom got a new boyfriend two months later and liked to blame Brittany for her problems.

One day, Brittany's mom told her to pack all her things, dropped her off at the Ranch, and drove away. Brittany didn't stop crying the whole night. Because of that lonely beginning, Brittany makes it a point to make every new rancher feel welcome. She likes the Ranch because "I can start all over and be who I want to be," or as Jennifer tells her, "be proud of who you are, baby."

The strong bond between Brittany and her house mom is the type of connection that the Ranch staff works to make with each child. The key connections aren't necessarily with houseparents: They could be with a ranch hand, a therapist, or CEO Mike Cumnock.

Cumnock, or "Mr. Mike" as he's called by the kids, believes this emphasis on bonding has prevented any suicides at the Ranches: "If a child truly believes you when you say you love them, they're not going to want to hurt themselves."

Many children also develop a close bond with certain horses-often the ugly, undesirable horses. One of those horses is Darla, a white snowcap Appaloosa with a two-foot-long scar on her shoulder. The scar is a remnant of an accident three and half years ago, when Darla spooked and ran into the edge of an open gate. As a result of her accident, Darla is one of the children's favorites.

"I've heard kids say when they see an animal on the farm in a vulnerable situation, they see a mirror of themselves," Ward said.


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