Troubled boys learn to deal with anger at youth ranch

Tuesday, December 31, 2002

LESTERVILLE, Mo. -- Along a stretch of Ozark hills that borders Brushy Creek in northern Reynolds County are dozens of trails and they all lead to one place -- Valley Springs Youth Ranch, located a mile off J Highway about 10 miles northwest of Lesterville.

A ranch is home to 86 boys ages 10 to 21. Although they come from throughout Missouri, the boys have one thing in common. They're angry. These kids aren't Boy Scouts and the ranch isn't a summer camp.

But with time the ranch has a way of mellowing their anger, and most of them have met their goals within a year, and are sent home.

"These boys have been abused, physically and mentally," said ranch owner and manager, George Becker. "A lot of the abuse is sexual, a lot of it neglect.

"They're angry kids. They all want to be home with their mom and dad, no matter how rough they were treated."

About 80 percent of the boys are referred to the ranch by the Division of Family Services, the rest by juvenile courts and the state's Department of Mental Health.

Becker opened the ranch complex in 1983, after moving from Minnesota to look for more acreage and a chance to counsel the parents of the boys at the ranch. Since then an estimated 2,000 boys have been referred to the ranch.

Expanding care

The 205-acre ranch consists of an administration and dining room building, a case managers building, school and gymnasium, a doctor's office, arcade building, a horse barn and seven residential homes.

Becker, 53, started caring for foster kids at age 22 and kept expanding his level of care in trying to make a difference in troubled boys' lives.

The youth ranch comes with a hitch, horse hitch that is. Becker started mixing unbroke youth with broke horses in Minnesota and bought some horses with him to Missouri.

"Horses are something kids can show love to and get love back. Horses just respond," Becker said. "Abused kids don't trust people, but they can work with a horse. A horse is non-threatening to them."

All of the boys at the ranch are trained to ride horses.

"They all go through the horse program," Becker said. "In the summer it's very active. The boys go on day and overnight trail rides.

"We have a therapist and a trail guide go along. They stop and do group therapy sessions around a campfire. It's more productive than couch therapy."

In the late 1980s as a diversion, George and his wife, Jo Ann, who is co-owner of the ranch, bought some mares to breed to expand their horse operation.

Roughly 24 well broke horses are used by the youth ranch for trail rides.

The youth ranch employs 80 people to deal with the 86 boys. The employees consist of therapists, house parents, case managers, cooks, maintenance people and mechanics.

"We have activities scheduled for the boys throughout the day," George Becker said. "We have a staff person awake with them in a house all night long."

Becker has a team of therapists review referral packets on each boy before deciding on allowing them to stay at the ranch. "They make phone calls and check references and decide if we can help them or not," Becker said.

All of the boys go through a minimum two weeks of orientation. "The orientation house is completely structured. There's no free time," Becker said. "They have to learn the rules and establish treatment goals. They have to understand their problems.

"It takes some of them two months to get out of orientation, before they realize we're not playing their game."

Personal goals set up

After orientation the boys are assigned to one of six residential houses. Twelve boys are assigned to each house. House parents are mostly married couples. "They do laundry for the boys, interact with them, and are parents to 12 boys," Becker said.

"We try to match boys up with house parents who have boys with similar problems."

Therapists and case managers at the ranch help each boy set up short-term and long-term goals. Case managers accompany them on trail rides and canoe floats.

"They learn to control their temper," Becker said. "A long-term goal might teach them to stop and think before they act, to count to ten, and learn to control their mouth. Anything to get the kids to think before they act."

The boys take an education proficiency test before assigning them to a school grade level. "They might be 15, but if they test out at the fourth grade level, that's where we start them at," Becker said. "Each boy has their own curriculum. We put eight boys to a classroom with a teacher and an aide. There's a lot of one on one. Some will go to school a half day and go on a work program for a half day, until they can maintain a whole day of school.

Becker has established a four-level system for the boys: tenderfoot, pathfinder, trail hand and honor roll. Each level comes with more spending money, free time and more privileges. By the time they get to the fourth level, the boys are attending school at Lesterville where they can participate in sports. They can even go on dates.

"They start to work on goals and when they're met, they move on to another house and go through the level system," Becker said.

"There's only room for 64 boys in the school at the ranch. Twenty two have to go to Lesterville. A bus picks them up."

In order to accommodate parents and visiting horse riders at the horse ranch, the Beckers built Brushy Creek Lodge and Resort, a half mile east of the horse ranch. The lodge houses a restaurant. There are cabins, tents and camping areas.

Becker said there are roughly 300 miles of trails accessible from the lodge area, about 200 miles of the trails are in the Mark Twain National Forest. "The trail rides are held during the summer. An overnight ride is 10 miles each way. We pack food. They have to care for and saddle and bridle their own horse."

Becker said the boys don't interact as well with horses as they did 10 years ago. "We deal with a lot tougher kids now. Eighty percent of them have been exposed to drugs. We have a lot of crack babies, whose moms were on crack before they were born," he said.

"Horses are a good tool, like anything else."

Becker said several parents come to the ranch on weekends to visit their sons and to participate in group sessions. "Some are here every weekend, others are here once a month. We prefer they come once a week," he said.

"We might have 10 families come on a weekend for a family seminar that offers training in parenting skills and communication. They might be here for a whole weekend.

"Sometime we have support families act out what real parents are suppose to be like.

"When a boy reaches his goals, we have a team meeting and work on a planned release. If all are in agreement, it's time for the boy to move on."

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