Once upon a time the threat of being sent to a “boy’s home” was enough to make boys hide their slingshots and stop pinching their sisters. Had they known about Peppers Ranch though, the threat would have lost a lot of its power.
Peppers Ranch, however, is home to boys with more serious issues than an annoying little sister. The ranch, located north of Edmond and west of Guthrie, is home to sixteen boys between the ages of eight and seventeen who come from broken homes and often were the victims of abuse and neglect.
Jim Williston, executive director of Peppers Ranch, said the ranch is home to good kids who got a bad start through no fault of their own. “Typically, they come from broken, dysfunctional homes. They’ve suffered abuse, even neglect and fear. These are really basically very good kids.”
Most of the boys come to Peppers Ranch from somewhere in Oklahoma. Williston said about 80 percent of the boys come out of the Department of Human Services, with the rest being private placements.
“Our program director interviews the family and gets as much background as possible on the boy, including school records and such,” Williston said of the process that takes place before a child is taken in at the ranch. “Then we get together and talk about the boy, talking about all the aspects we can share. Then it’s a group decision whether or not to accept him. It’s never an individual decision.”
Williston said the boys usually arrive at the ranch behind in school, having bounced through the state system, in and out of foster homes and having suffered through failed attempts at family reunification.
“Because Oklahoma is in a federally mandated program, the first priority is for the state to do everything it can to unify the family. That’s what your heart tells you to do. But the reality is that doing that often isn’t the best thing to do,” Williston said. “There’s often a background of drug use. When we talk about abuse, it really starts when the child is a toddler. The state could spend years attempting to reunify a family.”
Such cases often end in the parents’ rights to the child being taken away. Then a child can be placed for adoption, but the older he is, the less likely he is to be adopted. “It’s a good goal, but it becomes kind of tough,” Williston said.
The final option is to permanently place the child in foster care. Williston said there are currently about 14,000 children in the care of the state of Oklahoma right now; about half of those are in shelters or group homes like Peppers Ranch.
Peppers Ranch is a Class B facility, which means the boys who live there need very little in the way of counseling or psychotherapy. Williston said counseling is provided, if needed, but the screening process, which seeks to ensure the incoming boy will be able to adjust quickly without disrupting the lives of the other boys, usually eliminates children who need more psychological help than the ranch offers.
Boys at Peppers Ranch attend Guthrie Public Schools. Because it is a non-denominational faith-based facility, the boys also receive religious guidance that includes community service. The boys participate in physical activities that include everything from fishing to horseback riding, woodworking, music and hiking on the ranch’s 160 rural acres.
“Some people say city kids won’t like the ranch,” Williston said. “But we’ve found that whether the boy comes from a city or from a rural environment, they love living here. It’s probably the best place they’ve every lived. They tell other kids, ‘If you saw where I live, you’d want to live there, too.’”
Peppers Ranch opened its doors in 2002. Because of its short existence, it has not yet produced a “graduating class” of boys who have gone on to higher education or careers. The state prohibits boys age eighteen and up from living with younger boys, but Williston said simply kicking the boy out on his 18th birthday is counterproductive.
“The reality of children in the DHS system is that once they turn eighteen years old, they ‘age out’ and must move out on their own. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has determined nationally that within two to four years of aging out of the government system, only 50 percent of youth completed high school, fewer than half had jobs, one-third had been incarcerated and 25 percent had been homeless for at least one night,” Williston said.
He said that is why, with all its initial success, it is so important for Peppers Ranch to not only enlarge its capacity to serve boys in need, but to also create a transitional approach in sending its young men out into the world with a sense of confidence and adequate preparation.
To do that, the ranch is adding transitional housing. These housing complexes will include four, two-bedroom apartments where young men, eighteen years and older, who are either attending college or working full time and paying rent, can transition more naturally from Peppers Ranch into complete independent living.
Each apartment will have its own living room and kitchen where roommates will learn to work in cooperation and maintain a greater level of independence, but still have opportunities to see and visit with their former house families.
“In this way, young men will be given the opportunity to grow into a future of success, rather than feeling cast out because they have become too old at age eighteen,” Williston said. “Especially since the ranch seeks to teach young men what it means to be loving and considerate to others, the addition of transitional living apartments seems an essential next step for the Peppers Ranch campus.”
Peppers Ranch operates debt free, Williston said. Its 2006 operating budget of $447,400 is paid from grants, private donations and corporate contributions.
For more information contact Peppers ranch at 348-8333 or visit their website at www.peppersranch.com.