by Beth Townsend
While that familiar phrase was made famous in a political setting, families in crisis know it’s not just some catchy phrase that may help win a few votes. It’s a lifeline for a family in crisis. It is a calling for those God touched with a vision to aid families desperate for help. ‘It takes a village,’ also applies to making a vision happen that is so big that it had to be of God.
“Things stopped with Vicki Ellis about ten years ago. I mean, I had a vision, but if the community hadn’t been behind me, we wouldn’t be here,” said Ellis, the executive director at Heritage Ranch Christian Children’s Home in Zachary, La.
Sprawled out on 52 acres, the peaceful environment lends way to the idea of a fully functioning ranch. It will serve children in the midst of a personal or family crisis that requires respite outside the home.
“I would’ve just been sitting somewhere in a house with this vision and no way to bring about what God wanted to bring to fruition because really, this is His plan,” Vicki explained. “It’s been the obedience of God’s people to have faith in it [the vision], even more than anything from me. For so many people to say, ‘I’m going to pour time and energy into something that I haven’t seen yet,’ it’s amazing.”
One doesn’t just wake up one day wanting to open a home for children-in-crisis. Often, that vision comes from a deep place within the soul where God awakens the passions of one of His children as he reveals their life’s purpose. For Vicki, that vision was born from memories of her own pain as a child.
At 14, she was babysitting for Bobby and Libby Adams, who had four kids. “They asked me to babysit, but God had other plans,” she said thinking back. While traveling with the Adams, there was a monumental stop that would mark the teen’s life in a significant way. This stop was at Wears Valley Ranch, a children’s home near Sevierville, Tenn., founded by Jim Wood and his wife. During this stop, the Adams and Vicki toured the property and saw the structure of the first house at the ranch.
“As Jim Wood shared his vision of what God had put on his heart, something spoke to me because of my recent personal experience,” Vicki explained. “I was sexually abused as a child by my grandfather. Not until 11 did I even remember. You can imagine those three years before this trip; my parents had gotten me counseling and amazing support at my church. No matter what was going on though, there are still the lies that you believe when you have gone through that type of trauma.”
“Of course I wondered after the abuse, ‘Am I worth something? Did I cause something?’ I wasn’t your typical 14-year-old walking around a children’s home.”
Vicki identified with Wood when he spoke about families and children in crisis. She said she couldn’t image how she would have gotten through that season any other way than with the ‘village of people’ that supported her.
“Even with that support system, emotionally it feels like you barely get through a crisis like that,” Vicki recalled. For Vicki, the visit to Wears Valley Ranch sparked a lifelong journey pursuing a vision planted in her heart at as a teenager. After the trip, life resumed with normal teen activities: school, friends, etc.
“I was 14,” she explained, as if to imply there was only so much she could understand about God’s plan at that point in time. During her freshman year at LSU, Vicki began to revisit that summer.
“God put it on my heart to find out what had happened with Wears Valley Ranch,” she said. After calling to see what had happened since her visit, she found out that the first two homes were open. She applied to become an intern and was accepted.
“That three months included literally living in a room, in the girls’ house and doing life with them. Everything from getting them up, breakfast, lunch, dinner, counseling, educational support, taking them to the movies on Friday night,” Vicki remembered with fondness. “Being there when they woke up in the middle of the night [was important], especially with the girls, because they had identity issues.” The internship was a turning point for Vicki, now old enough to understand the broader scope of God’s calling.
“I came back and finished my undergraduate degree at LSU and started researching what it would mean to start a children’s home for the greater Baton Rouge area,” Vicki said. Her friends in Tennessee referred her to another children’s home, Eagle Ranch, in Georgia.
“When I told them I felt God was calling me to start a children’s home, they told me to call Director Eddie Staub,” she explained. “God called Eddie to mentor people, while passing on good business practices. While still in college, I attended the Wing Seminar at Eagle Ranch. I’ll say, sitting in that room, reading what it was going to involve [to start a home] was daunting. Getting together a board, getting the community involved, and over the course of time, from finding a building and capitol development standpoint, to serve 60 kids on a campus, you’d be raising 30 million plus dollars. That was the moment where I thought, ‘This is getting real.’ It’s where a calling has to come to grips with the reality of what it’s going to take.”
Vicki continued, “One thing I love about Eddie is that he doesn’t sugar coat anything. Sometimes he would make me mad because he would challenge me. But the reality was he was there to make sure that I understood what I was getting into. I remember him saying there were a lot of people who have a heart to serve, but if the business gets lost in the serving, you won’t be effective and you won’t last.” Tangible business decisions had to be made about board members and advisory staff.
“I just thought I’d recruit passionate people who love kids,” she said. “Eddie said, ‘Well that’s good, but you need an attorney and a human resource expert. You need an accountant, an insurance person, and someone who knows about media. You need an educator, and a pastor!’”
“To have that solid framework going into something is the reason we’ve been successful. We are modeling after a well-thought-through, well-executed plan and program that has been successful: the two-parent house couple, the family home setting in a rural area with educational and counseling support and family involvement. [We] focus around reunification for the family; that model has been very successful over the last 30 years. In our journey, our connection with Eagle Ranch has been critical for us.”
It was finally time to take what she had learned and get to work.
“From there it was starting a board. When I got our 501c3 status I was in my master’s program at LSU in December 2003. I didn’t know anything about fundraising, [creating a] board of directors or anything else,” Vicki said. “For the next couple of years it was just the process of learning what it means to run a business.”
Vicki built key relationships in the community and in 2006, under the leadership of Amy Horn, the current development director at Heritage Ranch, they started a life skills program that served more than 40 kids weekly from both Valley Park Alternative School in Baton Rouge and West Feliciana Alternative School in St. Francisville. Each school had mentors from the community that came in regularly to spend time with the kids.
Amy spoke in-depth about the program’s impact, “When we wrapped up the program in 2010, we served about 120 youth a week. We had fully implemented a life skills training program with a curriculum that we had developed. We had a program with community mentors that met in groups of three or four. They set goals, weekly, monthly, and yearly. Then we had a service-learning component where we took the youth out into the community to give back. Over the course of the year we would visit the battered women’s shelter, food bank, nursing homes, and different organizations to where they would get the opportunity to serve.” She continued, “Often the kids would think they didn’t want to go serve, but they would come out with filled with joy. We would go to lunch and share what they’d experienced. They came out feeling fulfilled, realizing they had done something positive.”
Vicki added thoughts about the importance of a multi-faceted mentoring approach, “Another thing we did was to offer them unique experiences they may not have otherwise had. We went to Juban’s for a fine dining experience. Another time, Mike Wampold, one of our board members and a successful real estate developer, had us visit his office and had executives share with the kids.”
The staff at Heritage Ranch discovered there are many misconceptions about families in crisis. “People have a misconception of what crisis looks like; that somehow kids in crisis don’t have a goals or dreams for their families. The reality is, God has made each of us with a purpose, there is something that we are called to accomplish,” Vicki said.
“It’s just a matter of if you have the resources and the support to challenge and motivate you. Yet, I understand that there will be people that have all the resources in the world but still won’t choose to pursue that dream or make that choice. But for the kids that we saw at Valley Park and St. Francisville, as well as those we’re interviewing at the ranch, they are kids that passionately want to be successful, yet something sidetracked them and now they are just trying to figure out how to get through the day.
She continued, “They still want to accomplish something. Those parents want to see their kids happy and successful. The life skills program taught us not to look at a situation and judge what you perceive. Those kids in Valley Park, I don’t care if they were expelled, they’re still kids.”
During Heritage Ranch meetings, as a staff and board, there were discussions about the likely situations to be faced. “We agreed it would be a tragedy for any of these kids not to reach their full potential,” Vicki stated. “I’m not faulting the community around them, but that community didn’t know how to provide the support that they needed.”
Finding the correct property for Heritage Ranch was a major decision and took many years. The initial board was founded in 2004 with three members. By 2006 the board expanded to seven members. By 2010 the program had a fully functioning 10-person board of directors and 10-person board of advisors
“One of the things Eddie Staub told us is that often it’s difficult to find the board members that can serve because of the busyness of life,” Vicki explained. “That is why we had a smaller board for a long time. Princeton Bardwell, who was one of our board chairs, served on the board for six years. Almost every board member has served for six years, even though they get a three-year term!”
Vicki continued, “We have an incredible leadership structure. What we’ve looked for in building our team is men and women that have the values to guide this organization in the way God called it to be, a faith-based children’s home. For each, regardless of what they do for our board, I could trust them to raise my own children.”
“I think that’s one of the reasons people give up on visions,” Vicki stated. “Anybody who strives to do something bigger than themselves, you have to realize that you can only know and do so much. I can’t be a human resource major, an educator and all of these roles that have to be managed. Yet, I am tasked with leading this organization everyday, and that community makes the difference.”
Vicki recalled receiving a phone call from a parent that she knew was beyond the scope of her knowledge. Charlie Frey, a member of the board of advisors at the time and a well respected psychologist, worked with them to help her make that decision. She repeatedly spoke of the importance of having external wisdom and support.
There are many needs that the community can provide. Vicki explained, “We just had a group from Woodlawn Baptist come for the work day last week. They did in four hours what our staff couldn’t have done in weeks. One easy way to help is join our workdays, the first Saturday of every month from 8:00 a.m. to noon. It’s a good way for people to be on the campus and see first hand what we’re doing.” Continuing, she added, “One of our first donors was a 20-year old that had been raised by single mom that wanted to do something, giving $25 a month. We’ve had others that have given $100 a year from 2004 until now. Whether you are mowing the lawn, giving a check for $50,000 or coming in to read once a week, in my estimation, it’s all the same in the sense that without it we wouldn’t be here.”
From its inception, Heritage Ranch had the goal to be debt-free, modeling the business strategies of Eagle Ranch and Vicki’s mentor Eddie Staub.
“Fiscal responsibility has been a critical part of the planning process,” Vicki elaborated. “We have an operating reserve in the bank. Moving forward, we won’t build until we have raised the funds. When I’m going out to ask somebody to give $50,000 because we want to start a scholarship fund, it might be a meeting in a restaurant, but Amy has met the child that that scholarship is going to fund. Doing that [raising money] and being debt-free means that the legacy we’re creating for our kids is stable. That is huge.”
Amy added, “We closed our initial capital campaign at $1.9 million before we opened because the board said we would not open until we had that cash reserve. That is the great thing about having strong leadership.”
“Our tuition is $12,000 a year, $1000 a month. The reason that we set the tuition is because there is a value to the service that we’re providing. If you look at what a family in crisis has to spend per year, it would be astounding,” Vicki said. “Individual counseling weekly, group counseling weekly, both of which we provide; family counseling every other week, as well as weekly tutoring. For the level of support we provide, anyone in crisis knows they could be spending $30,000 a year, plus housing, and still be stressed out and in crisis at home.”
To ensure that no child would be turned away because of money, Heritage Ranch established a scholarship fund. Social worker Fairly Edrington meets with families to help determine what they can afford.
“When you are in a crisis, financial stress is one of the biggest triggers. When your family is falling apart then someone says, ‘We can help your kid and it’s going to cost $50,000 dollars a year,’ that one call can be the very thing that puts a mom over the edge. When you’re in crisis, you need hope more than anything else,” Vicki added empathetically. “If we determine they can pay $250 a month or $600 a month or even the full $1,000 a month [that’s great]. If we [see that we] have a need, we will talk to our donors about that child. We are fundraising all year long because we know we’re going to be raising the difference anyway.”
Fairly’s role will become critical in the well-rounded approach to meet the individual needs of the boys who will be moving in. “The relationship between myself and the house parents is critical because we have to be a united front with the boys,” Fairly explained. “We want to make sure we’re on the same page with how we treat the boys in the therapeutic realm.”
“An example would be a child that has impulse control. ‘What can we do to help you not speak out of turn every 15 seconds, but instead, every 30 seconds?’ You have to celebrate small victories, not just large goals,” Fairly continued. “We try to help get to the core issues as a family. If we just worked with the child and not the rest of the family, then there will be problems down the road. We teach them ways to communicate better, how a listen to one another, teaching them ways to deal with stress and anger, and to celebrate together. If your child lies every day and you can get to where they only lie every other day that is a huge victory. We have to set goals that are attainable, [and] well-defined.”
Fairly’s experience revealed common sense advice for struggles commonly experienced in families. “Communication for families is that the root of everything. Parents often want to fix problems instead of listening to the problem,” Fairly explained. “If a child says they had a tough day at school, the parent wants to tell them what to do next time. But the kid just wants to be heard. Processing what they’re saying goes with putting down your phone. If I tell my mom something and I’m on my phone and she’s on her phone, I’m not going to hear what she’s really saying, same goes for her.”
Fairly is the contact person with the public school each young man attends. “We plan to be involved, have a relationship with the principals, guidance counselors, and teachers,” she said. Now that Heritage Ranch has opened, plans for future homes are being discussed.
“We will not build house two or three until we have the funds,” Fairly stated. “We anticipate that being a 3 to 5 year process. Each home will be built with houseparents’ quarters, allowing them to have their own living space in case they have their own children. We have a goal of housing a minimum of 60 boys and girls ages 8 to18 with transitional living. We’ll also have a chapel, educational center, and pavilion. We plan for a big community.” Fairly concluded with a broad smile.
Vicki’s passion for the project is infectious. Year after year, she builds upon success and determination. In discussing seasons of doubt, she was quick to respond, “There are times I get weary,” she admits. “Were it not for the community support, I would not have been able to do what we have done. This quit being about me and my vision years ago.”
Heritage Ranch has been a part of the Ellis family life since it began. Three of their four children (Gabriel, 9, Jesse, 7, Mercy, 5, and Kai, 2) joined around the table and seemed to enjoy being in the midst of everyday business. As Vicki’s children scurried around she added, “My dad is our site manager and my mom comes out two days a week and does grant writing and helps with tutoring. He and mom moved up the road a couple of miles to be closer.” They are Larry Brown, known as Paw Paw, and Ann Brown known affectionately as Nana.”
Vicki credits the support of her husband Micah as monumental: “During the time God was giving birth to this vision, Micah’s realization of what it would really mean for our family was amazing. It should always be God first, family second and ministry third. You struggle with that when God calls you do something because it so much a part of you, but you realize you have to have that family support.” From carrying kids to and from school or to going to galas, or being there when Vicki cries or feel like she can’t do this anymore, Micah has always been supportive.
Vicki continued, “There are a lot of things God asks us to do that are not small, just like the families in crisis are not going through a small thing. For every person, especially in crisis, we realize humans can’t give what you need. Sometimes you need someone who’s always going to be there for you and that is God! He will never fail us. God has been reminding me that He has established Heritage Ranch. It’s just day-to-day trust in Him to bring about what He has already done.”
Sadly people often think young people in environments like Heritage Ranch have parents that just gave up, but that’s not the case. Any one of these youngsters could be your neighbor’s child, or a pastor’s child. There is no formula for good parenting or keeping a child safe. As young people grow up, they must figure out whom they are. Sometimes they don’t know how to do so, and instead, start acting out.
“By the time a young person is placed in a children’s home environment, the family has usually tried everything. They’ve gone to their church family, they’ve tried counseling; they’ve done everything in the books,” Vicki explained. “Heritage Ranch is about coming alongside families in crisis when they love their child so much that they’re willing to sacrifice having them in their home to keep them safe in our care, because they know that may be the only chance to get through this crisis.”
If there is a young man in crisis age 10 to 17 and their family has tried everything else, readers are encouraged to call Fairly Edrington for a discussion and to potentially set up an interview. The intake process and application can be found on the Heritage Ranch website at www.hrbr.org.
The goal of Heritage Ranch is to provide care for the community that will impact generations of change, and it is an opportunity for the Greater Baton Rouge community to have something not previously available. Business leaders like Mike Wampold, Julio Malera, Princeton Bardwell, and Bill Peters are just a few of the high-profile community members who saw the need and have answered the call to help.
Matthew 25 speaks to “receiving the inheritance that has been prepared for you.” Hope is what we are about. Now that Vicki Ellis’ vision is a reality, it will be about how our community works together to bring this vision to it’s full potential.
Meet House Parents Brian and Brenda Zawodniak
Brian and Brenda are looking forward to this new chapter. They used to dream of having a ranch or farm where they could help children, but the opportunity didn’t work out until they heard about Heritage Ranch. “When this job came up, it seemed a great fit,” said Brian; Brenda nodded in agreement.
Having learned about the job from their daughter who interned at the ranch, they knew God ordered their steps with perfect timing. They will be utilizing Brian’s 30-years of military service and Brenda’s vast ministry experience, as well as their own parenting experience, as they’ve also raised two (now grown) children.
“God ordered our steps here,” Brian explained. “There are easier jobs with more money, but this is where we are supposed to be and what we want to do.
“We are looking forward to getting to know the kids, finding out what they like. We plan to teach them to work together as a team,” Brian said.
“Moving here can be the change of scenery these kids need,” Brenda said. “Sometimes kids just don’t know how to start with a clean slate.” Their plan is to focus on the positives.
“We will do Bible studies and build their focal point back to the Lord. Effort equals results, good decisions equal positive things,” Brian concluded.
Why is Heritage Ranch needed in our community?
“There are families in crises all around us…these are regular people who find their family unit threatened, who are in severe emotional pain and who desperately need help for their child, or children, and themselves. Heritage Ranch is a response to this need that is rooted in compassion, driven by service and sustained through love. It is people helping people, neighbors loving neighbors, in an organized, secure and professional, yet home-style, environment. Heritage Ranch follows a template created by Eagle Ranch in Gainesville, GA that has given Eagle Ranch the distinction of being described as the most effective child service center in Georgia. We believe Heritage Ranch will be that for Baton Rouge and Louisiana.”
–Princeton Bardwell, Heritage Ranch Board of Advisors
“Heritage Ranch is needed to give our Parish youth an opportunity to become what God intends for them.”
–Bill Peters, Heritage Ranch Board of Advisors
“Heritage Ranch provides an outstanding family structure for children to become ambassadors for HIM.”
–Bill Peters, Heritage Ranch Board of Advisors
What is the importance of the whole community coming together to found a children’s home for our area?
“The Heritage Ranch business model, in fact the experience of similar, privately funded children’s homes, relies on small donations from many people. So, by design, Heritage Ranch depends on a broad base of support throughout the community. Its’ ministry of mitigating family crises, providing a safe haven for the children, providing counseling and helping restore relationships and reunite families benefits everyone because, in the end, it is about building stronger families and a stronger community.”
–Princeton Bardwell, Heritage Ranch Board of Advisors
“A private, voluntary placement program such as Heritage Ranch must have the support of the entire community to survive and thrive.”
– Jeff Plauche, Board Chair Heritage Ranch