More than a school ...

Wears Valley Ranch has been refuge for children in crisis for 20 years
Dec. 03, 2012 @ 12:01 AM

Children get a lot out of horseback riding.

“When they learn to ride, learn to care for an animal, kids work through issues of self-esteem,” said Pastor James P. Wood, founder and executive director of Wears Valley Ranch.

“Kids will say to an animal the things they desperately need to hear themselves,” he said. “Don’t be afraid. You’re safe here. No one’s going to hurt you.”

Horseback riding is one of the offerings at Wears Valley Ranch, a residential and educational facility for children from troubled backgrounds. Its Lyon Springs Road campus sprawls over 125 acres next to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

This year, Wears Valley Ranch celebrates its 20th anniversary.

The ranch can house up to 32 kids, from 6-year-olds to high school seniors. Currently 17 kids live there. They share bedrooms in a couple of pleasant houses that are managed by live-in married couples. The arrangement lets children from troubled backgrounds see what healthy families look like.

What the kids at Wears Valley Ranch have in common, Wood says, “is a problem that the child did not create: A health crisis, a financial crisis. Or the child suffered some kind of abuse.”

At the ranch, children study. They worship. They receive Biblical counseling. They manage livestock. They garden.

Wears Valley Ranch is, says Wood, “a facility for kids who need healing and restoration.”

On the ranch is St. Andrew’s School, an educational program accredited by the Association of Christian Schools International. Students are tutored in liberal arts disciplines such as math, history and foreign languages.

St. Andrew’s School is attended by the 17 Wears Valley Ranch residents, as well as eight students who are the children of ranch staffers.

“Our school is called St. Andrew’s because I knew that if a child graduated from Wears Valley Ranch, his transcript would be downgraded by an admissions counselor,” said Wood. “It sounds like a reform school. St. Andrew’s School sounds like a preppie place where a kid must have gotten a good education.”

Andrew was the disciple who was most famous for bringing people to Jesus, said Wood. “One was a little boy who had five loaves and two fish. It’s the only miracle recorded in all four Gospels.” Jesus used the food to feed a multitude. “We want children to know that if they will surrender everything, they will receive back many times over.”

St. Andrew’s graduates have been admitted to dozens of colleges and universities, including Emory, Fordham, Belmont, Wabash, and Washington and Lee, as well as the University of Tennessee, Middle Tennessee State University and the University of Georgia.

“For a long time we could say that every child has been admitted to the college of their choice,” said chief operating officer Brian McDonnell. Now, he says, the school prepares students for futures that may include college and may not.

Last week, Wood gave a tour of the ranch’s teaching facilities, including a structure that houses instruction rooms and a science lab. He also showed off a warm, book-lined building. In it, a small group of students gathered around a table for a minicourse. Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, St. Andrews students take minicourses on a variety of subjects (examples: journalism, geography) instead of their normal curricula.

“We’re studying Israel,” said their teacher, as the kids looked at maps and munched carrot sticks. The group included students from as far away as Maryland.

“Our conviction is that children are learning all day, every day,” said Wood. “The question is, what are they learning? Our responsibility as parents and educators is to try to shape the environment where a child is learning the truth.”

Children learn at different paces, Wood said. “If a child’s experience in math class is one that is perpetually frustrating, you might think that you’re teaching that child fractions, but what you’re really teaching is, ‘Math is difficult, and I don’t want to do this anymore.’ I would rather not teach math at that point. When that child is ready to learn, he’ll learn.”

After children enroll, tests determine their academic achievement level. Tests also identify how each child learns best. “Not everyone learns in the same way,” said Wood. “We’ll find a child who has great ability but significant deficits in knowledge.”

Wood told the story of a St. Andrews student who cried when he was tutored in long division. “He said, ‘They tried to teach me this in school, and I told them I can’t do it.’ It turned out, that was the point when his parents’ breakup was at its ugliest. There was violence and verbal abuse. The boy was terrorized. And so he missed long division.”

St. Andrews students are taught by math and science tutor Wayne Eberhardt and humanities director Andrew Wood, who also serves as headmaster. Andrew is Jim and Susan Wood’s son.

Each child is assigned a mentor. “A good way to describe the mentor role is as support for the house parents,” said Grace Ruegsegger, one of nine Wears Valley Ranch mentors. Mentors also tutor students.

“Each student has an individualized education plan,” said Ruegsegger. “For a child who’s new to the ranch, it’s going to be very hands-on teaching – walking them through each math problem, being near the child, giving them reassurance.”

For more experienced students, “the role of the mentor is to help the child become more independent,” said Ruegsegger.

A 2012 graduate of Indiana Wesleyan University, Ruegsegger said the Lord brought her to Wears Valley Ranch. “I love this kind of ministry,” noted the Auburn, Ind., native.

The horseback riding program is overseen by equestrian director Ryan McCaffrey. Wood said that when St. Andrew’s students learn to manage and care for horses, they gain a valuable lesson: “Obedience to authority is a good thing. They come from environments where they didn’t learn that.”

“We are about rescuing children from difficult situations and modeling for them the things they most need to know about life,” said McDonnell. “The first is that God loves them and has a wonderful plan for them, and he sent Jesus to give them new life.”

Some Wears Valley Ranch students have had two incarcerated parents. Others have been the children of unwed teenage mothers.

“For many, it’s a multigenerational pattern of neglect and failure,” said McDonnell. “That’s not to say every parent is at fault. We have single moms who are working hard. We have grandparents who are taking care of the kids.”

“Virtually all of these children have someone who cares about them, but no family who can care for them at the present time,” said Wood. “These are not wards of the state. They are private placements. The family simply needs assistance in providing a safe, nurturing environment.”

Wears Valley Ranch receives inquiries from up to 300 parents each year. Only eight to 10 students are admitted. “It’s very selective,” said Wood. “We try to help those who don’t come here with referrals. We help families find appropriate resources.”

Tuition, room and board cost $37,000. Scholarship assistance is awarded to 97 percent of students, Wood said. Most ranch funding comes from individual donors, churches and foundations.

“I love the philosophy of this place,” said Ruegsegger, “the idea of taking a kids from an environment that’s destructive and placing them where we do life together. The idea isn’t that healing comes through a counseling session, though that’s an element. Healing comes from discipline, from learning that you are loved, and learning security.”

Most kids at Wears Valley Ranch come from homes without discipline and accountability, said Ruegsegger. “That leaves kids feeling chaotic and guilty. For them to come here and be taught, in a loving context: Yes, that was wrong and these are consequences, but you are not trapped, here is the right way to act – I think that’s freeing for students.”

Wears Valley Ranch is a beautiful place. There are pastures and gardens, and the national park is steps away. “It gives us a back yard that’s unbeatable,” said Wood.

The students’ recreational facilities include a zip line and a 56-foot climbing wall. These also are used by campers at Camp Arrowwood, which meets each summer on the property.

The horses aren’t the only animals. There are sheep and chickens. In an aquaponics installation, fish and vegetables are raised symbiotically.

Students eat the food they help to produce. They grow kale, sweet potatoes, lettuce. “Last year we sowed a third of an acre of wheat,” said McDonnell. “We reaped 700 pounds and threshed it. The biblical principle is separating wheat from chaff. Now they’re baking bread from wheat they grew.”

Every morning at 9, everyone on Wears Valley Ranch gathers in the dining hall for worship. “We spend about 15 minutes singing and praying,” said Wood. “Typically, three days a week, I do a teaching from God’s word.”

St. Andrews student Jessica, 15, especially likes that part of her schedule. “I enjoy the fact that we get up and have devotions first,” she said.

What else does she like about Wears Valley Ranch? “I like riding horses,” she said. “And loving lots of people.”