Learning to belong

Monday, October 4, 2004

Editor's note: The names of the children have been changed for their protection.

By Tony Rehagen ~ Southeast Missourian

COBDEN, Ill. -- Dakota is a first-time rider. Perched atop a black quarter horse, the 10-year-old is having trouble finding the gas pedal.

"Get on, Ace," says Dakota in a timid echo of a shout as she gently taps the sides of the beast with her ankles.

No motion from the animal.

"Be more aggressive!" yells Sandy Nance from her seat along the rail of the arena at her Black Diamond Ranch.

"Get on, Ace," repeats Dakota, a little louder, a bit firmer.

Dakota's more experienced fellow campers seem amused as they circle her and Ace on their horses.

"Be aggressive, smack her!" Nance persists.

Suddenly a tempest swells in Dakota. She unleashes a brash, "Get on, Ace!" punctuated with the slap of her hand on the hide of the animal.

Ace breaks into a slow canter. Dakota's face breaks out in a bright smile.

"It's good for some these kids because they're forced to be aggressive," Nance says as she watches Dakota ride. "A lot of times they're the ones that are used to being victims of aggression."

Black Diamond Ranch was created for children who are victims. It was created for those whose lives have been affected by something out of their control.

The ranch's Diamonds in the Rough program was created for children ages 7 to 18 who suffer from physical disabilities, behavioral disorders or come from a broken home or foster care. Here they can interact with children like themselves. Together they make crafts, ride horses, swim, fish, hike and play games with each other. They also learn to belong.

"These kids are different as soon as they open their eyes in the morning," Nance said. "They're picked up in a special bus, taken to a special class. Here they learn to be part of something."

Nance and her husband, Larry, created Black Diamond Ranch. They created it for children like Anna.

A second-timer at Black Diamond, Anna has little trouble navigating her horse, Doc, around the arena. Riding horses is one of her favorite parts of the camp.

"I also like it because I get to meet new and nice people," Anna said. "At home there are people who are mean to me."

Because the official records of these children are confidential, Nance doesn't know the details of their pasts. She knows only what the files say their problem is, what the parents tell her and what comes out of the children during more emotional moments.

In one of those moments during her last stay at Black Diamond, Anna got into a fight with another girl. It evolved into a sort of bragging match to see who's been abused more. Anna told Nance that at age 10, she's already been in about a dozen foster homes. She's also claimed to have been a victim of sexual abuse by a family member. Nance has little reason to doubt it.

In the nine years since she and her husband opened Black Diamond, more than 500 children have come to camp here. She said at least half of them have come back.

"All their stories are essentially the same," Nance said. "They are all different from what people consider 'normal.'"

Close to home

During the summer months, Black Diamond Ranch holds five-day camps of up to 10 children every week. But when September comes, the program is rolled back to one respite weekend a month. The children who attend are usually referred and sponsored by state agencies like the Illinois Department of Human Services or the Department of Child and Family Services. These children are blind, deaf or mute; suffer from Down syndrome or cerebral palsy; have been sexually abused, adopted; or come from a single-parent family. They suffer from attention deficit disorder or other learning disabilities or simply have low self-esteem. Many times it is a combination of these.

"They come to camp with a lot of baggage," Nance said.

Both figuratively and literally.

When children arrive at Black Diamond, the first thing they do is report with their guardian to the ranch house. There they sign some paperwork and check in their meds. This means handing over a plastic baggie full of pills for each child and providing the schedule of times at which they must be administered. For a 10-child camp, this can mean keeping track of about 30 different schedules for 30 different types of medication for the entire week. Since Sandy Nance usually has her hands full as activity director and disciplinarian, her daughter, Mandy Moore, has taken the role of pharmacist.

Moore was the inspiration for Black Diamond Ranch. In 1975, she was born with myelomeningocele, the severest form of spina bifida, in which the spinal cord and its protective covering (the meninges) protrude from an opening in the spine. This affects her lower body and restricts her ability to walk.

At the time of her birth, Nance and her husband had been raising horses for six years, but had no ranch of their own. As her daughter grew up, Nance began looking into the benefits of animal therapy for her daughter and children like her. In 1979, Nance got together with mothers of other children with disabilities and started Pegasus, a therapeutic riding program for disabled children.

"Animals build trust by listening, they don't judge," Nance said. "When a child learns to communicate with an animal, it builds confidence in that child, and caring for the animal builds responsibility."

It also provided her daughter interaction with children who were facing the same problems of exclusion because of being different.

Nance donated her horses for Pegasus until the late 1980s, when the stable owners began refusing accommodation. Because Pegasus was a free, volunteer-run program, there was no money in it for them, she said. Frustration from those battles festered within Nance. She had seen her idea in action and had seen the results in her daughter and other children. She knew she needed a ranch of her own, where she could be in control. But it wasn't until 1995, that her dream came to fruition in the form of Black Diamond Ranch.

After she and her husband bought the ranch, Nance applied for the necessary permits and made contact with local and state agencies. Within months Diamonds in the Rough was up and running.

Jason

"Get on, Ace!" Dakota says in a much firmer tone. Immediately Ace starts up running. This time no slap is necessary.

Dakota herself almost seems surprised at her progress. As she issues her commands with voice and body, her eyes light up as if she can't believe her words are governing this massive animal.

Indeed it seems that all the campers have their horses under tow, so much so that Nance decides it's time for them to line up and parade around the arena.

This particular group of children holds a special place in Nance's heart. They were sent here by Adoption Preservation, an agency that seeks to keep adoptive families together. Most of these children, like Anna, have been through more than one foster home.

In addition to their two natural children, Nance and her husband have raised four foster children themselves, and provided 21-day emergency foster care for more than 100 children who've been taken out of abusive situations. Because of this, Nance is especially sympathetic to the plight of adopted children and foster parents.

"It's not that all these foster parents aren't good, caring people," Nance said. "But how do you work into an already-made family?"

As she watches the children and their horses make their way around the arena, Nance is startled by the clang of a stick against the metal rail behind her.

"Jason, what are you doing back there?" she says gruffly to the boy with stick in hand, leaning against the rail outside the arena.

Nance isn't too hard on Jason, even if he isn't interacting with the other children at the moment. Nance knows he needs his space.

Jason is a Black Diamond success story of sorts. When he first came here five years ago, he was an angry 8-year-old. Nance personally knew his foster family to be good people, but behavioral disorders had Jason taking a cocktail of medications and had him fighting anyone in his path.

"We used to have to hold him down he'd get so angry," Nance remembered.

His initial visit to Black Diamond was a rough one.

After getting into a scuffle with a fellow camper, Jason berated a volunteer counselor who was trying to discipline him, spitting profanities in her face. Nance stepped in and took Jason into his cabin.

"I remember he was cussing me out and threatening to hit me in the face," Nance said. "I didn't know what I was going to do."

But then she noticed a hole in the mattress on one of the campers' beds. She interrupted Jason's tirade with a fit of her own, not directed specifically at the boy.

"I was screaming, 'You kids just have no respect for anything,'" Nance said. When her ire settled, she returned her focus to Jason, but he was silent. Nance said he began apologizing, saying he respected her and the things on the ranch. For the rest of camp, Jason not only stayed out of trouble, but he helped do dishes and said "please" and "thank you" for everything. He carried that respect home with him.

"It was basic behavioral management," Nance said. "Focus on a problem they can help you with and he forgets what he was so angry about. When he went home, his family called me and asked, 'What did you do to this kid?'"

What she did is what she often has to do. She said she sometimes has to appeal to these children in ways that their families have not been able to.

Jason, now 13, can now show the other children how to feed and treat the horses. Sometimes he separates himself from the group, but he stays within Nance's view. He now feels like he belongs here.

Prayer fire

With Nance playing the role of disciplinarian, it enables other people who donate time to the camp to enjoy the hat of good cop. It's a role that Grandma Coyote relishes.

A retired social worker who's part Cherokee, Grandma Coyote comes to each camp to teach the ways and values of American Indians. All of her teachings are centered on the camp's key principle: You must have respect for all other people, animals and things. She also teaches them to respect themselves.

"Most of these kids have big voids in their lives, an emptiness," Coyote said. "They need something to take them out of their everyday lives, outside of themselves. They need to be shown there's a world out there that isn't as bad as their world may seem."

One exercise that Coyote helps the children conduct is a prayer fire.

At nightfall on the last day of each weeklong session, the children of the camp form a circle around the campfire. There they sit silently, awaiting their turn as each camper approaches the fire. Alone before the fire, that child holds his hand-woven prayer bag containing tobacco and salt.

Lifting the bag to his mouth, the child speaks softly into it before throwing it into the fire. As the bag is consumed by the flame, the camper watches the smoke rise into the sky, hoping their whispered wish or good thought is lifted to the creator that he might hear it and be pleased.

Although modeled after an American Indian tradition, the prayer fire isn't a religious ceremony. It was thought up by Coyote and Nance as a therapeutic tool to encourage introspection in these children, who take it seriously. Some choose not to participate because they say they can't think of any good thoughts.

'Outnumbering the thorns'

Coyote fills her prayer bag with good thoughts for the Nances.

"They won't tell you, but they struggle to keep this place open," Coyote confessed.

She said although the state agencies sponsor most of the children through government funds and grant money, the Nances will never refuse a child with special needs but without means to come to camp.

"I can't tell you how many times a kid has wanted to come but has no money, no organization or agency to sponsor them," Coyote said. "But they come. They come at Sandy and Larry's expense."

Indeed, Nance said that money is tight at Black Diamond Ranch. Rising insurance costs and government agencies that are paying for camps six months after the fact are putting financial stress on the camp. Their only sources of income are her husband's job with the city of Cobden and her part-time job as a substitute bus driver for the Cobden School District. She said the biggest problem, however, is just letting people in Southern Illinois and Missouri that they are there.

To remedy this, Nance has decided to start offering riding lessons and renting the ranch out to hunters and horse clubs. She's planned fund raisers like a haunted barn on Halloween and hayrides. She's also opened up the kitchen at the Black Diamond Cafe to the public on weekends, in hopes to raise money to help keep the camp afloat.

But for all of the financial troubles, Nance still has some good thoughts for her prayer bag.

"It's hard to see some of these kids, the problems they deal with," Nance said. "But when you reach a kid, watch them interact with other kids and with the horses ... the roses always outnumber the thorns."

trehagen@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 137

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