A Place for Kids in Crisis
by Lisa Tramontana
In the summer of 2016, Vicki Ellis had plenty of reason to be proud. The residential program she had founded for troubled youth was thriving. It had taken a decade of planning and fundraising, but Heritage Ranch Christian Children’s Home in Zachary was firmly established with its first three residents making great progress academically, behaviorally, and spiritually.
And then came the flood.
The 52-acre property, the office, the beautiful home where the boys lived with their house parents — all were under water now, damaged beyond belief. Ellis would have to start over. The ranch would have to be closed. But worse than anything, the boys would have to be sent home. Imagine Ellis’ disappointment and sadness.
Fortunately, Ellis is a fighter and was determined not to give up. Heritage Ranch had been a dream since she was a teenager, and she had poured her heart and soul into seeing that dream come true.
“The damage was estimated at $570,000,” she said, “but we rebuilt. The boys continued the program with outpatient counseling, and we were fortunate that so many people helped us by donating supplies, gutting buildings … completely renovating the ranch.”
Slowly, the broken pieces were put back together. Heritage Ranch officially reopened last January with a new group of boys who live with house parents Tori and Gage Caszatt, and residential advisor Kyle Sheppard. The program is designed for boys age 10 to 18 dealing with anxiety, depression and mild to moderate behavioral disorders. They are most often referred by schools, churches, counselors or law enforcement. Many parents say they were out of options and felt they had nowhere else to turn when they discovered Heritage Ranch.
Applicants go through a detailed screening process to ensure they will benefit from the structured model and Christian environment. Those with a history of violence or sexually inappropriate behavior are not accepted. With a focus on counseling and education in a disciplined environment, the hope is to reunite the boys with their families in a period of about 18 months.
The boys participate in school, recreational activities, family dinners, nightly devotions, youth group meetings, and daily chores. They return home every other weekend and on holidays. “We expect them to do their schoolwork, get along with their peers and be respectful to others,” Ellis said. “We use a ‘choice and consequence’ model to teach them that their actions matter.”
In other words, along with love, praise and support in a family setting, the boys also understand that a refusal to follow rules results in a loss of privileges.
“They understand this concept,” Ellis said. “If they act out, they know that the consequence might be extra chores or an early bedtime. In their homes, they might have yelled and screamed and pushed their parents until they gave in, but that doesn’t happen here.”
Many parents are conflicted about sending their children to a residential program, often because they feel as if they are giving up. But one of the program’s most appealing aspects is family counseling that involves the parents, siblings and anyone else who participates in the raising of the child.
Josh Atwell is the development and marketing director at Heritage Ranch. He promotes the program through social media, annual reports, an E newsletter, and a soon-to-be produced podcast. He also helps with fundraising by working with local businesses, donors and churches in the community.
“The Heritage Ranch program is a journey of small victories and defeats,” he said, describing an adolescent in the program who refused to engage with the staff. At first, the boy wouldn’t come out of his room, and when he finally did, he refused to wear the appropriate clothing. For a time, he refused to participate in group activities. But in just a few days, his attitude changed. One morning, he joined the other boys for a game of basketball, and they cheered and welcomed him. “These were all small steps,” Atwell said, “but they were steps in the right direction.”
“What we’re doing here is life-changing. It’s transformative,” Ellis said. “We want the kids to experience the love of Christ and instill in them the values Christ modeled for us. We want them to know that the people in our lives may hurt and disappoint us … but God is always here for us and he loves us unconditionally.”
Ellis’ master plan is to eventually have 40 staff members working in 10 houses that serve 60 boys and girls — and she is realistic about the timeline — 15 to 20 years. Considering the work she is doing and the difference she’s making in the lives of so many families, it will certainly be worth the wait.
“This isn’t easy work,” she said. “It requires the Lord to work through us in order to be successful.”
There are many ways to support Heritage Ranch. Volunteers are welcome on the first Saturday of each month. Anyone interested in volunteering should visit the website at hrbr.org to apply. The website also includes more details about the program and its staff, and opportunities to donate. You can also call (225) 658-1800.