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PIGEON FORGE, Tenn.-It's possible, when driving through Great Smoky Mountains National Park, to take a turn off the main road and over a narrow wooden bridge, where a small lane winds through the Appalachian murk and bursts straight into a Thomas Kincade painting. There's the valley, with the multi-colored woods in the background, the verdant pastures in the foreground, beams of light peeking through the clouds and mist, the gleaming whitewashed buildings dotted throughout. Wears Valley Ranch has a breathtaking setting.
An actual Kincade print hangs above the fireplace in the Ranch's main multipurpose meeting hall, but it appears a poor and feeble effort compared to the wonders outside one morning. Jim Wood, the executive director of Wears Valley Ranch, spoke with his staff and students about the wonders inside: "God uses His word to transform our lives and our lives are changed."
Wears Valley Ranch, located southeast of Pigeon Forge, Tenn., has helped to transform lives since 1991. At-risk children from troubled family situations live there and go to school. Most come from abusive, often sexually abusive, families. Others are escaping from the drugs and gangs of inner-city Atlanta. Still others have been raised by overwhelmed parents or grandparents. Wears Valley Ranch offers an alternative to the uncaring, unfeeling state foster care system: Here they get personalized attention, family-style nurturing, Christian love and safety.
"There's always some sort of family trauma," Wood says. "The mom dies or the dad disappears. The kids are in the care of grandparents who are elderly and struggling. How does a single parent work two jobs and take care of their kids? Some parents realize that the best thing is to send their kids here. Some parents aren't caring and responsible. So we try to provide alternative relationships."
The ranch encourages children to stay in touch with their real families whenever appropriate, often spending vacation time with them in their homes. Parents typically pay modest fees: "We think it's important for families to try to be involved in the support of their children, because that's biblical," Wood said. "We encourage parents to step up and do what they can for a child's life."
Students live in four houses on the property, two for boys and two for girls. Full-time counselors are on site. House parents-a married couple, who live in the house-and college age "mentors" care for the children."We want to provide a biblical model of a marriage to the kids because they haven't had that before," residential director Richard Petsch said. "There are no shift workers, nobody coming on and coming off, so it's like a family."
The houses, which sit on a hillside in the woods, have big porches, big kitchens, and rec rooms in the basement. They could be safely described as luxurious, the kind of houses that millionaires would be proud to own as summer homes. But more than the amenities, details make the house a home for its residents: Upstairs the shared bedrooms are different sizes, like in a real house.
The ranch only accepts children from ages 6 to 13, who can stay until they graduate from high school. Kids who are overly belligerent, kids with substance abuse or legal issues, or those too young or too old are referred elsewhere. "We're looking for children who understand this is a good opportunity," Petsch said-and last month the ranch had only 16 students out of a capacity of 32. Wood added, "Kids have to be willing to come. We've never had a runaway."
Shykea Banks came from Knoxville eight years ago, when she was 9 years old. "My mom couldn't take care of all us kids," Banks recalled. "My dad wasn't really in our lives at the time. My grandmother was taking care of us and had hepatitis C. We found out about the ranch, and we fell in love with it. Everyone was so loving and caring with us."
The ranch's educational system benefited Shykea. Students are practically homeschooled, taking almost all their classes in their homes, one-on-one with a house parent or mentor. The individualized approach allows house parents and mentors to teach each child at their own pace. A ropes course on site helps students learn trust and self-confidence. Horses and sheep help the healing: "Being a small child on a horse, learning how to control this huge scary animal, it's very helpful to children with abuse issues," Petsch said.
Danielle Adams graduated from Wears Valley Ranch a year ago. She arrived at the ranch when she was 16, an exception to the age rule, because she brought with her two younger siblings: "Both of my parents went to prison for selling weed, and my grandmother died that week." Faced with the prospect of putting her two siblings into a state run group home, filled with rough and rowdy teenage girls, Adams tried to raise them herself, a responsibility she wasn't ready to handle: "I didn't understand what it takes to take care of someone. There were a lot of emotional things I couldn't handle. My grades had gone downhill."
In 2006 she found the ranch and got her younger brothers accepted. Three months later she followed them and pieced her life together again: "It was the best thing that ever happened to me academically. School went from being something I didn't understand and didn't want to do, to something I could advance at."
Currently studying nursing, Adams knows where she would be if she hadn't found the ranch: "I would be dropped out of school, struggling to provide for my brothers. Or they might be in foster homes, and I would be separated from them forever." Now Adams can pursue her studies, knowing that her family is intact and in responsible hands: "The ranch really showed me what a family should look like. They really showed me how a family is supposed to love always."
Click here to listen to WORLD editor in chief Marvin Olasky discuss with Alisa Harris the South regional finalists.
To view a video profile of Wears Valley Ranch and of each of the other 2010 regional finalists and to read profiles of finalists and winners from 2006 through 2009, visit WORLDmag.com/compassion.
Wears Valley Ranch Factbox
Location: Sevierville, Tenn.
Mission: Residence and school for children from abusive or otherwise troubled families.
Size: 16 students, 32 staff members, 130+ graduates
Annual Budget: $1,500,000 per year