Tulsa Hills Youth Ranch Teaching Acceptance and Love
What do you get when you match a hurting child with a rescue horse and link them together with a caring mentor? A match made in heaven. This bonding formula, designed to serve a special niche in the community, is in full swing at 20-acre Tulsa Hills Youth Ranch (THYR).
Today, kids face challenges and obstacles that are different—and in many experts’ opinions far greater—from those of previous generations for a host of reasons, including the prevalence of drugs, the influence of technology and social media, the breakdown of the traditional family and bullying. Many children and youth struggle with trust, self-worth and depression issues when they lack consistent, loving relationships (in and/or out of the home). These at-risk youth may get lost in the shuffle of life, whether they come from a foster or group home, a shelter, an adoptive environment or a nuclear biological family.
Building Hope with Horses
As at-risk youths’ hurdles became glaringly apparent to Donna and Mike Freeman, THYR’s founders, they could no longer turn a blind eye. Instead, back in 2011, they turned their hearts directly toward these skyrocketing needs by spending several years studying and researching how best to complement the existing organizations and agencies in Tulsa and how they could fill the gap where kids’ souls were hurting and trust was broken.
The stories of abuse, neglect and depression led Donna to want to help in a way that spoke to her when she struggled most with low self-confidence and worth. The unconditional love from her dog, Kelly, helped tremendously during the toughest times in middle and high school. “I knew Kelly would greet me with her wagging tail and loving licks every day—-regardless of how I looked or how restless I felt internally,” she said. “This is what I wanted to provide for today’s kids with a new twist—-to add a loving buddy (mentor) into the mix to accept them unconditionally and help them talk through issues and feelings.”
Following more research and reading Kim Meeder’s Hope Rising, Donna then decided to use horses with hurting children to build trust and help with behavioral issues. After learning of Crystal Peaks Youth Ranch, which Meeder and others had operated for 20 years, the Freemans created a similar program. Paying Crystal Peaks a visit and subsequently attending three annual leadership conferences, THYR is now mentored by Crystal Peaks and is one of its “similar ministries,” where the Freemans gain invaluable knowledge through examples and experience from Crystal Peaks.
THYR provides so much more than a fun day at the ranch for the children. Ultimately, the goal is to make a lasting impact on each of their lives. A broken relationship is what darkened the light inside of most of the children who come to THYR. Donna said that scientific data proves that by infusing healthy relationships into broken hearts and minds, children and youth can be rewired and rekindled in their ability to trust and grow.
Reigning With Care—A Family Affair
Along with the Freemans, the ranch is operated by Kyle and Tricia Livingston, Donna’s brother-in-law and sister. The foursome collectively brings a wealth of experience working with children and families in ministry and education. Prior to moving from Texas to Oklahoma, Kyle served as the lead pastor of Southside Church in Corpus Christi. He is now the Executive Director of THYR and lives there full-time with Tricia and their three children. Ginger, the ranch dog, is always ready to greet kids and horses alike, lending love to all guests. The Freemans’ two sons and countless volunteers provide manpower for the ranch.
After purchasing the property in the fall of 2013, horses were relocated from Oklahoma and Texas. The first, Sierra, was an unexpected gift that came with the ranch acquisition. Several hundred pounds underweight, she was left abandoned — tied to a tree with a barbed-wire bit. At first she was petrified of people, but Donna nursed Sierra to physical and psychological health, and now she is thriving, welcoming all to pet, groom and ride her. Sierra understands much more than meets the eye because horses are in touch with human emotion and respond in kind, an important aspect of pairing the horses with troubled children.
While more horses were rescued from organizations such as Oklahoma’s Blazes Tribute Equine Rescue, which takes in abused/neglected horses for rehabilitation and placement (two of them now live at THYR), volunteers were rounded up to prepare the land. Thanks to many giving hands, fences were removed, houses restored, ponds expanded and gardens tilled. Endless time and resources were devoted to create a secure place for children to feel loved and grow in hope and trust.
Jessie Jordan, who works at Tulsa’s Laura Dester Shelter, has joined the team as part-time Director of Horsemanship. She brings a special charm and valuable experience — playing a unique role in developing a team of people that knows the horses well and that can apply and manage safety techniques during dedicated mentoring sessions. These sessions are often when the children begin to believe in themselves again and rediscover (or maybe experience for the first time) that they are worthy of love and trust.
Nurturing In Full Swing
THYR has been up and running for 15 months with dedicated staff and volunteers supporting nearly four-dozen mentoring sessions each week. During individual sessions, youth are put to “work” in the form of grooming, playing with/riding horses as well as conducting activities of their choosing such as gardening, fishing, mucking stalls, or, for desired quiet time, simply contemplating on the “thinking rock.” Each child is paired with his/her mentor for 90 minutes to work and play. Often during sessions, children are already excited, talking about what they want to do during their visit the following week.
Success Stories Abound
The ranch draws like-hearted people interested in nurturing souls. The Murphy family is one extraordinary example of the type of families served. Raising nine girls (a biological daughter, 6 adopted girls and 2 fostered girls, in the midst of the adoption process), Latonia, the mother, came to the ranch seeking support, and now every week the entire crew shows up in their van. Fifteen-year-old Dominique, the oldest, said that her unique family situation has made her more responsible and “a kinder person with a bigger heart.” She said that since the family has been going to the ranch, her sisters are “more responsible with animals and that they have learned to care for others and carry out chores.” She hopes to follow in her mother’s footsteps, fostering children as an adult. Dominique said she wants to help them from feeling or being alone. As for her favorite horse, she likes old man Breezy. The two have a bond because, “Breezy is unique for having two different colored eyes,” she said. “Just because he is unusual doesn’t mean he isn’t worthy.”
The staff, mentors and children served have quickly become family at a place where the betterment of one another is the norm. A 10-year-old boy from the Department of Human Services (DHS) said that his favorite thing about the ranch is its “niceness.” “I do not need to use my coping skills when I am at a place where people are nice,” he said. A young foster girl shared, “I feel excited and calm at the ranch.” And, she said that Sierra is her favorite horse because she reminds her of her own scary past.
What’s On the Horizon
The long-term vision for the ranch is simple—- that hope is renewed, healing and restoration are realized, and trust is reborn for each person served. With the understanding that not every hurt and pain can be resolved, the strategy is to help children put “broken pieces” of themselves back together through loving communication and interaction with dedicated people and a special herd of horses in an unconditionally loving atmosphere (the backbone of the program). As it flourishes and matures, THYR hopes to add foster and adopted sibling reunification days into the fold and to expand the mentoring program by engaging retirees in “foster grandparenting.”
As a volunteer myself, I am personally transformed every time I step foot on the ranch. And, I often wonder who is getting the best therapy. Is it me? Everybody wins because everybody matters.
To learn more, visit tulsahillsyouthranch.org to learn about the mentor program, the staff, volunteer, mentoring and donor opportunities, ongoing projects, designated “work days,” and festivals.