Faith Life, October 2018

Heritage Ranch, A Haven for Troubled Youth

Heritage Ranch

A Place for Kids in Crisis

by Lisa Tramontana

Heritage Ranch covers more than 50 acres in Zachary, about 20 miles from Baton Rouge

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 five 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 10 houses that serve 60 boys and girls – and to provide counseling for 200 to 300 family members. 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.

Residents and staff members pose for a photo at Heritage Ranch.
Game night!
An annual golf tournament is one of Heritage Ranch’s major fundraisers.
Bike rides are a favorite activity at Heritage Ranch.
July 2017, Pastor's Perspective

Expressions of God’s Goodness

 

Expressions of God’s Goodness

by Rev. Ashley Freeman

By NICK JOHNSON

Before I began seminary, I was involved with a prison ministry. This ministry takes place over a weekend. The days are long, starting at 7 a.m. and not ending until 9 p.m. The agenda for the weekend is packed, start to finish. It consists of talks, followed by small group discussions that center on God’s goodness and love for the 42 incarcerated participants. The team that makes these weekends possible consists of 45 people from the “free world” and 30 inmates, or “inside helpers” who have previously attended one of the weekend events and continue to demonstrate service and leadership within the walls of the prison.

During one particular weekend, between talks, while the participants were outside in a large tent having group discussions, I was sitting by myself in the chapel. It was springtime so everything was blooming and the air was full of pollen. As a result, I was suffering from a terrible sinus headache — one of those right behind your eyes, which makes you feel like your eyes could pop out at any moment. As a visitor inside the prison, I was not allowed to bring any medication in and the dose from earlier in the morning was wearing off. Instead, I asked that the lights be turned off for a moment. I just sat there with my head down and my eyes closed, wondering if I was going to be able to make it until the end of our activities.

While I sat there, one of the inside helpers asked, “What is wrong?”

I responded, “Hey, it’s no big deal, I simply have a headache.”

“Well in that case, I am going to say a prayer for you,” he replied.

Before he began praying, he motioned for the other three inside helpers, who were working to set the chapel up for the next activity, to come and pray with him. There we were, me sitting in a chair and these four inmates standing over me, laying their hands on my head and shoulders.

I found myself lost in the words of the prayer, and to this day, I have no idea how long the prayer was. While he was praying, unseen by me, others began to quietly join the circle. By the time he had finished, I was surrounded by the entire group — 44 men from the free world and 72 prisoners. When the leader finished praying, the group’s resounding “Amen” startled and surprised me. This act of service and kindness was completely unexpected and it changed the tone of the rest of the weekend.

Reflecting upon these events, a few things have emerged for me. First, the Book of Genesis, after six days of creation, reads: “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.” (Gen 1:31) God’s creation is rooted in God’s goodness. As the author of the Acts of the Apostle writes, “in [God] we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28) This was certainly true for me that spring day inside the chapel surrounded by prisoners. The goodness of God is not limited to our particular religious views, political opinions or any other notion we may have. The goodness and love of God is the underpinning for the whole of creation and is often encountered in unexpected and surprising ways.

Second, one of the primary ways in which we encounter and participate with God’s goodness and love is by serving others. This also was true that day in the chapel. In his letter to the Ephesians, the Apostle Paul wrote, “I became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God’s grace given me through the working of his power.” (Eph 3:7)  Like Paul, the prisoner’s willingness to be a servant allowed him to receive God’s grace, which empowered him and everyone present to experience God’s goodness and love in a powerful way.

This experience, along with others, has taught me that when we are willing to be servants first, we are swept up into the work that God is doing — allowing us not only to experience the goodness and love of God but also empowering us to be that which we were created to be —  expressions of God’s goodness and love in the world.

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The Rev. Ashley Freeman lives in Zachary, La. with his wife Annie and their three children, where he is the rector of St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church. He attended Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas, where he graduated in 2015. Ashley grew up in Fairhope, Alabama and was active with the Kairos Prison Ministry while living there, from 2007-2012.

Baton Rouge Christian Life MAGAZINE

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