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A home for hope

Wears Valley Ranch gives children in crisis a loving, learning environment
Story and photos by Chris Villines 8/29/2014

 

With the natural beauty of the Great Smoky Mountains as the scenic backdrop, students make their way to The Carriage House science building at Wears Valley Ranch. The Sevier County educational and residential campus serves children from troubled backgrounds.
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As tour guides go, young JonCorey grades a solid “A” while showing visitors around Wears Valley Ranch, a Christ-centered residential and educational destination for boys and girls ages 6 to 18 with troubled backgrounds not of their own making.

“This is the kitchen,” JonCorey proclaims with a wave of his arm that would make any “Price is Right” model envious. “This is where the magic happens!”

The well-mannered 12-year-old positively beams with pride and excitement while bouncing from room to room, giving a complete, colorful description at each stop in the three-level house. To JonCorey, this is home, and it’s understandable why he would exhibit such enthusiasm given his life before coming to Wears Valley Ranch a year ago.

In his case, the ranch and its onsite St. Andrew’s School — accredited by the Association of Christian Schools International and open to ranch residents and children of the more than 20 staffers — provide means for escaping the negative influences of inner-city Atlanta, where he spent his entire youth.

“My mom was around, but I never really had a daddy figure to show me how a man should act,” says JonCorey, who enjoys soccer and aspires to one day be a lawyer. “I was a Christian, but my actions weren’t showing it, so I wanted to get out of that environment and become a better person. Once I came to the ranch, everything changed. People are happy and nice and want to live for the Lord.”

Accompanying JonCorey as tour guide is housemate Jaquille, an 11-year-old from Knoxville who’s heading into his third year at the ranch. He, too, was led here through heartbreaking circumstances.

“My mom couldn’t afford a house,” Jaquille says as he sits cross-legged in one of the front- porch rocking chairs. “We had one, but we couldn’t stay there because it had bedbugs everywhere. Then we went to [the Knoxville Area Rescue Mission], but something happened, so we had to leave. I was happy to get hooked up with this place.”

JonCorey and Jaquille (whose last names are withheld for privacy purposes) live with married houseparents, two mentors, and six fellow male students in the comfortable home. It’s one of four that can house up to eight students each in this serene setting.

The 120-acre campus, with dramatic views of the Great Smoky Mountains, includes a dining hall, science building, library/resource center, open recreation areas, swimming pool, rock-climbing wall, garden and greenhouse, and equestrian center. There’s even a ranch store where the children can cash in the “ranch bucks” they’ve earned for toys, games, and treats.

“Everything we’ve undertaken or built has been done with funds available on the front end through donations we’ve received,” says Pat Brown, director of maintenance and construction at the ranch. “There’s no debt here. That’s God’s grace at work.”

The desire to help youngsters with unrealized potential is what first led Wears Valley Ranch founders Jim and Susan Wood to this picturesque property in 1991. They learned that landowner Margretta Craig had gifted the acreage to a local organization with the caveat that its board select a deserving ministry to locate there. After meeting with that board and presenting their vision, the land donation was made official, and the Woods established Wears Valley Ranch the following year.

For Jim, who had been serving as senior pastor of Mount Vernon Baptist Church in Sandy Springs, Ga., this gift was the answer to years of praying for the right opportunity.

“When I was a teenager, I did volunteer work leading Bible studies at the state reform school in North Carolina,” says Jim, who serves as the ranch’s executive director, senior pastor of Covenant Community Church of Wears Valley, and host of the “Abiding in Christ” show on XM and Sirius satellite radio. “I saw an 11-year-old boy who had been abandoned by his family sharing the same room with a 13-year-old boy who had killed his foster mother. And I thought, ‘OK, this should not be.’ The abandoned child should not be treated the same as someone who has committed an act of murder.

“So I prayed that God would do something for those children who were not delinquents but simply needed a place. I became convinced that He wanted me to start a children’s home, and when it was the right time and place that He would provide the land. Ultimately, we were blessed with this multi-million-dollar piece of property here in Wears Valley.”

Such notable figures as Billy Graham, Bill Gaither, and Focus on the Family Vice President Mac McQuiston have given ringing endorsements of the life-changing work being done at Wears Valley Ranch. But it’s those who are around the children day to day, such as equestrian director Ryan McCaffrey, who play a crucial role in guiding their transformation from social outcasts to well-rounded individuals ready to take on life after the ranch. 

“First and foremost, a child has to want to be here, and their parent or guardian has to want him or her to be here,” says Ryan, an Illinois native who joined the Wears Valley staff in 2007. “A lot of people find out about us through referrals and word-of-mouth — kids who come here aren’t court-ordered.”

Once a child is enrolled, the goal is to treat “the whole person,” Ryan says.

“Because of their unfortunate circumstances, a lot of kids come in really far behind educationally,” he adds. “Our mission is to not only help them in the classroom but also grow in character, develop good life skills, and become godly men and women who are productive in society and with their families. We do this by providing a stable home environment, the school, recreation, and daily Bible curriculum.”

In this rural, farm-like setting, it’s only natural that there is an agricultural aspect to Wears Valley Ranch. The residents help care for the horses, sheep, cattle, chickens, vegetables grown in the garden and greenhouse, and fish that are raised aquaponically. The ranch relies on Sevier Farmers Cooperative for all of its feed, fencing, vegetable seed, inputs, and other farm supplies.

“We’re teaching the kids practical work skills and how to personally care for something, whether it’s a plant or an animal,” says Pat, who assists the children with these endeavors. “In the garden, I let them help me plant and prepare the soil. They learn the importance of getting weeds out or leaving weeds in and about what fertilizer does and how it works. This spring, they researched why a seed grows up instead of down.”

Pat, who in the past served as a houseparent along with wife Beth, says that whether these youngsters realize it or not, all too often this isn’t really their first experience with caretaking.

“A lot of the children who come here have been taking care of their parents instead of their parents taking care of them,” he says softly. “We want to show them a different aspect that’s enjoyable and that they can take pride in. We want them to blossom here.”

A good many have done just that. Those who have graduated from St. Andrew’s after their time at the ranch have been admitted to such institutions as Emory University in Atlanta, Fordham University in New York City, Belmont University in Nashville, the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, and the University of Georgia in Athens. Some earn full scholarships, and several grants and loans are available for others.

“Every child who has graduated and wanted to further their education has gotten into the college of their choice,” says Pat. “I would say at least 60 percent of our students go on to college, but some have gone on and built successful careers in other ways, like the military.”

Even though there’s an increasing number of children who could benefit from coming to Wears Valley Ranch, says Pastor Wood, requests for child placement have declined in recent years.

“It’s not because there’s less turmoil out there,” he says. “What we’re seeing is the sad outcome of people giving up. I call it passion fatigue. People used to look at a child in a dreadful situation and say, ‘We’ve got to do something,’ but now more are saying, ‘What can you do? It’s everywhere.’ There’s not less need; there are fewer kids getting resources devoted to them.”

But even with this stark reality, Pastor Wood says he remains as steadfast as ever in carrying out the mission of Wears Valley Ranch.

“If there is a child who needs this kind of opportunity, finances are not an issue,” he says. “The issue is connecting that child with this place. This is a very safe environment for them, and we want them to know it and feel it. The work that we’re doing is supernatural. It can only be done as God works in the lives of these children and through the staff.”

For more information about Wears Valley Ranch, visit www.wvr.org.

 
 
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