This last month I watched my oldest son walk across the stage at his high school graduation. This rite of passage has me reflecting on his childhood and the unique experience of being a “Ranch Kid.” My sons Aren (18), Micah (15), and Ranch staffer Lynn Pilcher’s daughter, Annika (17), are members of a very special tribe. They spent their youth as part of the Spring Lake Ranch community. Over the years they participated in countless events and celebrations and are an important part of the fabric that makes this place so special. There have been many Ranch Kids before them and hopefully, there will be many that follow.
When my husband Doug (who is the current Woods Crew Program Manager) and I first started working at the Ranch in 1999, we knew that we planned to have children in the near future. We had just finished two years in the Peace Corps and our intention was just to stay at SLR for a year or so until we figured out where to settle down. Once we were a part of the community, it didn’t take long to realize that this was the perfect place to raise a family.
As Program Coordinators (known as House Advisors in our time), we had opportunities to hang out with other Ranch Kids at events. We had also heard stories about the myriad other Ranch Kids that preceded them. When SLR had the 75th anniversary celebration I was able to meet the adult versions of the kids from these stories and hear their tales of growing up here.
These young people were creative and talented, but beyond that, there was a special quality they all possessed. It is hard to put into words, but their exposure to the Ranch during their childhood seemed to help them develop an innate ability to accept people for who they are.
Many Ranch Kids don’t actually live on the Hill. They participate in dinners and celebrations, but are not here everyday. For my two boys, however, the Hill is the only home that they have ever known. When they were young, I wondered if they believed that all of their friends lived the way they did. Doesn’t everyone have chains of people passing wood outside their house? Doesn’t everyone have a “cow parade” every time the cattle need to change pasture? Doesn’t everyone dance around a May pole or sing around a yule log? To them, these events were normal everyday occurrences, but to other kids, they must seem strange.
Over the years, I wondered if my kids truly understood what the Ranch was about. Doug and I never gave a backstory to why people had come here and never verbally explained that their home was actually a therapeutic, community-based, treatment center. When they were young, they simply referred to Ranchers as “The Workers”. We never explained that the work is a form of therapy. A couple of years ago, my son Aren had a new friend come over for the day. I overheard a conversation where Aren described SLR to his friend. I don’t remember the exact words he used, but it was clear that he understood the Ranch on a deep level. He conveyed to his friend the essence of this healing community and made it seem special and normal at the same time. Like the other Ranch Kids before him, he had learned to accept people for who they are.
When Aren was one month old, I gave a speech at Yule thanking Spring Lake Ranch for their support of my family. The care and love that the community gave us around the time of Aren’s birth was very moving for me. During that speech, I stated the adage, “It takes a village to raise a child.” That statement could not have been more true. The Ranch community has always welcomed children, and they have always felt included as valued members. Years ago, during a conversation with a Rancher, he told me that having families on the Hill made this place a true community instead of a facility.
Last month, Aren graduated. Next year, his lifelong friend and fellow Ranch Kid Annika will do the same, and then Micah will follow shortly after her. Like their predecessors, these Ranch Kids are amazing. They are poised to do great things. They are musicians, athletes, artists, writers, and honor students. As a parent, I wonder about what paths in life they will choose and worry about the roadblocks they may face. In my heart, however, I know that Ranch Kids are resilient. While they were growing up on the Hill, I am sure they absorbed a few life lessons from this community. Lessons like:
the world is made up of a diverse array of individuals; everyone has a story to tell and it is worth taking the time to hear it; work can be your therapy; sometimes asking for help is the bravest thing you can do. Their lives have been permanently shaped by this community and, no matter where they end up, they will remember all they have learned here, and that SLR is a place that they can always call home.