Thursday, December 26, 2013

Silent Night

It's hard to believe Christmas has come and gone. With the busy-ness of the season, I'm yet again much later in posting than I wanted to be, but better late than never, right? :-)

December started off with decorating the cottages - inside and out. For the record, boys do not think decorating is a fun activity.
It took a little prompting, but we got our cottage looking festive. One of the boys took on the majority of the outside project, coming up with a design and hanging the lights. He did an excellent job. We enjoyed a trip to a local light display, Forster Falls Festival of Lights. We had a wagon ride around the park and sipped some hot cocoa and just enjoyed being together. It was a fun night!

We got to go to a local tree farm and cut down our own tree, which is a first for me. Here's a shot of our group "claiming" our tree:

Funny how you can find the perfect tree outside, but when you bring it in, it's not quite so perfect. Ours ended up being too tall and probably a bit too wide. And after spending a great deal of time getting it into the tree stand and putting the lights and decorations on it, it fell over. One of the boys came to the rescue and it's been standing tall since, albeit a bit crooked.

Elianna also celebrated her third (THIRD!!) birthday on December 10! Where did that three years go?! She's no longer a baby...she's so animated and funny. She keeps the boys (and us) laughing, for sure. We celebrated her day by going to the children's museum in Winston-Salem, NC and then walking around Old Salem Village. We came home for dinner, cupcakes and presents. It was a fun way to celebrate our little "Na-Na" as we affectionately call her.

We also experienced our first "storm" here. It really wasn't much, but there was some ice involved so we had to stay home from church. In lieu of a sermon from our pastor, we watched Billy Graham's My Hope America. The boys seemed to enjoy it and didn't make a sound for most of it, which is a minor miracle for them because they talk through most movies. We had some good discussion about it afterward, too.

One funny story - We got to experience our first "intruder" here this month, as well. One of the boys came to our upstairs apartment door one evening while I was getting the girls ready for bed. He asked if I would bring Tonka (our dog) out so he could play with him. While I was getting the dog, the boy yelled "Hey, we have a bat!" I ran to the door and asked where. He pointed to this little black creature, clinging to the side of the fireplace (right next to our apartment door.) I screamed, ran into the apartment and slammed the door shut while the boys scrambled to see it and decide what to do with it. Jason came to the rescue and scooped it up (in his Batman hat, no less) and took it outside. He said it must have come because it knew Batman lived here. I don't care why the little bat came, I just don't want to see him again! Oh, and for the record, the bat did live.

Joy Ranch has some annual events around the holidays, one of them being a trip to Barter Theater in Abingdon. Normally, it's scheduled on the same day as a church visit, but because of the ice and having to stay put, we didn't get to go. They were able to reschedule the theater visit though, and we got to see a production of A Christmas Story. The boys seemed to enjoy it and even our girls sat through it, mesmerized. It made for some quotables around our house, like "You'll shoot yer eye out!" and "I have to go wee-wee!" I never was able to get a picture of the boys together, looking all daper. When I tried to take pictures, they all covered their faces.

The next annual event was the Live Nativity. I've never experienced one and from things I'd heard, I just thought it was some people standing in a stable, dressed like Mary & Joseph and you just walk by and look and them and walk on...But here, it's a drive-through event. And it ended up making the front page of the local paper - how cool is that? (I saved it for my keepsakes.) We have staff and residents at different stations, acting out the different parts. Jason was the prophet at the beginning, prophesying the birth of the coming Messiah. The next stop was the entrance to Jerusalem, where you were shaken down by guards and told to pay your taxes. Next came the shepherds, tending their flocks by night. This is followed by an angel choir, singing of the Savior's birth. After that, you're told by the innkeepers that there is no room in all of Bethlehem. And of course, the last stop is the lowly stable where Mary & Joseph proudly show you the newborn King.
It was a wonderful evening, and a great way to be reminded of the reason we celebrate this joyous time of year - because the God of the universe sent His own son to be born as a babe, live a perfect life, die the death we deserve and rise again. All this so that we may have life, and life abundant! It blows me away to think about it...

Another way we celebrate this special holiday is with some Christmas parties. We had a staff Christmas party the week before Christmas. We shared some delicious brunch food and enjoyed some rare time together just having fun. It can be a challenge to get to know the other staff because of our responsibilities within the homes, so when we do get together, it's a good time. We played a neat game which involved everyone bringing $5.00 gift cards...we picked pieces of paper which said things like "trade with someone in the room who likes to read" or "trade with the person you think has the highest IQ." It made for a lot of laughs and we all ended up with gift cards at the end. It was neat - a game I'd definitely play again. The kids also have a Christmas party. Several churches/organizations provide Christmas gifts for the kids and we gathered with them in our gym for some pizza and presents. They read the Christmas story to us and shared a few thoughts on Christmas, then let the kids open their gifts.
It was a lovely night and the kids, including our own two girls, received some great gifts.

And then, Christmas break was upon us. Some of our guys left on Friday night, some on Saturday, another on Monday and two more on Christmas Eve. As I write this, our cottage is empty and strangely quiet. I must admit, I'm not a fan of that. I miss our boys, but am so very glad they all have somewhere to spend Christmas. They will trickle in over the next week-10 days. It will be a strange week, but it's good to get to spend time with them on a more individual basis, too.

And on that, note, here is wishing you and yours a very Merry Christmas and a wonderful start to 2014!

Friday, December 6, 2013

We now interrupt your regularly scheduled program...

Commercial break!
Call me a nerd, but to me, there’s nothing quite like a good book! I could spend hours reading and typically, I have 2-5 books going at one time. And every so often, a book comes along that is worth sharing with others. Recently, an old friend of mine from Camp Good News wrote a book. He’s written a few now, but this time he opened it up to Facebook friends to read and review it and I jumped on it. Now, the deal was, I could get an un-edited copy to read and then I was supposed to give a little review around the time it came out…It was released Nov. 26, so 2 weeks later is still “around” that time, right?! Yes, as usual, I am late. But, better late than never…

Risky Gospel, by Owen Strachan, is chock full of the ingredients it takes to make a good book on Christian living: personal stories, biblical text, humor and applicability (did I just make up a word?) I’ll be honest, going into it I thought it might be over my head – a deep theology text, which is not my kind of reading. Even as a teenager, Owen was a deep-thinker. He’s well-educated, intelligent and articulate. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to follow, much less relate. But this book is for people of all walks of life and all stages of their journey with the Lord.

No matter who we are, life often feels very busy – sometimes overwhelming. We don’t want to settle for mediocre, but we do and for a hundred different reasons. And life gets hard. I think there’s a part of all of us that just wants things to be easy. But, as Owen points out, the Christian life wasn’t made to be an easy, put-your-head-down-and-get-through-the-day kind of life. We were made for more – so much more! But, that doesn’t mean life will be easy. In fact, many verses paint the opposite picture and Owen doesn’t try to hide that fact. “You follow God and you just might get asked to walk in the wilderness. For forty years.” (pg. 34) That sounds scary to some and causes us to hold back, it keeps us living in mediocre-land.  To step out of that and live out the risky Gospel, we have to first understand who God is and realize our identity as His child. In chapter 3, Owen does a phenomenal job of pointing out the need to understand who we are in Christ and he does so by pulling out Scripture to encourage us in embracing our identity. As we do that, we gain purpose and confidence. We begin to see that no matter our station in life, we can grow, we can bring glory to God. Once we understand our identity, Owen reminds us of the importance of building our faith and gives us practical ways to do that. Then he points out something most books seem to ignore: that we will fail. We will get frustrated with ourselves and our experiences. But the story doesn’t end there – we have hope because of this risky Gospel living in us. Too many authors today give us these ways to be better Christians and then when we don’t live up to it, we feel guilty, ashamed and drowning in despair. I love that Owen is honest about the human condition, his own included, and the redemption found in Jesus.

The next few chapters are spent showing us how we can bring glory to God in a variety of ways: by building a legacy, a vocation, a godly community, an evangelistic outreach and public witness. I loved that each of these chapters focused on the importance of these areas of our lives and give the reader practical ways to grow. Being encouraged to invest in your family and see spouses and children as great blessings is refreshing. Hearing that God cares more about your heart and your service than your title and paycheck is always encouraging, especially in a world so focused on the latter. And even in Christian circles, we chalk spiritual “success” up to how involved we are in ministry and whether it is vocational or not. While being in ministry is wonderful, it doesn’t necessarily determine how Christ-like one is. God has lots of us in lots of different places in life because that’s where He can use us best or grow us more like Him. And in a day and age of “church shopping” it’s good to be challenged to commit to a godly community. Many people today have a bad taste in their mouth when it comes to church, usually because of a bad experience (or a bunch!) or people who have been hurt. But the reality is, we NEED each other – in the good AND the bad. That’s challenging to read, but oh so good, too! Owen gives great (and often overlooked) ideas for how to serve other believers. The same week I read that chapter, I had an opportunity to help out with something at our new church. I didn’t want to go. It was our night off, we go to a large church and I don’t know anyone…the excuses went on. But then God reminded me how much I need to be connected to a local body of believers. So, I went. And nothing huge happened, but it was an opportunity to serve and meet people. We need that, even when we think we don’t. Owen mentioned the story of Rosaria Champagne Butterfield in this chapter. If you’ve never heard of her or read her book, you should! But, that’s for another day…

Probably the most difficult chapters for me were the ones on evangelistic witness and public witness. Like many people, I’d rather keep my head down and be out of the spotlight. I don’t like to ruffle feathers AT. ALL. I try to be super sensitive about not offending people (I’m sure I offend people more than I think, but I do try not to!) And while we shouldn’t be out trying to offend people and make enemies, the reality is, the Gospel is offensive. People are going to get upset and relationships may be severed. And that’s where I struggle. And yet again, as is true throughout the rest of the book, Owen breaks it down to show us ways to step out in faith and obedience – makes it seem doable. And of course, it is because of the power of Christ in us. So, while I didn’t “like” these chapters, it wasn’t because anything Owen said was incorrect – it was because the truth hurts! And a book like this wouldn’t be good if it didn’t challenge you.

The book ends with a challenge to Christians to live out this risky Gospel, understanding that the risk is really minimal when we serve a great big God. From our earthly standpoint, it seems scary, but God knows all the days of our lives and what will bring Him the most glory. It may mean we face all sorts of trials, big and small. Only God knows. But, as Owen writes, “if we’re pursuing Christ wholeheartedly through a life of gospel risk, here’s the awesome truth: there really is no such thing as failure.” (pg. 215) There’s no “you’re doing it wrong.” And that does not sound risky at all. In fact, the thought is quite comforting.

So, even though I’ve written a novel of my own, there’s still a lot of good stuff left to explore. If you get a chance, pick up a copy. I’m pretty sure it’ll be under the tree this Christmas for some of my loved ones! J

Thursday, November 28, 2013

In ALL things, give thanks...

I would love to always write about the good stuff and say that life is always happy here, but I’d be lying. It’s no different than anyone else – some days are just HARD. Saturday was one of those days. I think we all must have gotten up on the wrong side of the bed (though some beds are pushed up against the wall, so I’m not sure what that means.) I didn’t help anything by letting the girls stay up until 10 the night before (in the hopes that they would sleep in this morning, sleep-in morning.) And of course, they were up by 6:30 and not in the greatest of moods. So, I was already grumpy by the time the guys woke up and came out for breakfast. We had planned to take a trip to Winston-Salem, NC to visit Old Salem Village. But one thing after another kept delaying us. Saturday chores seemed to take half the day and then there were bad attitudes and issues to deal with and I just felt like everything was met with a fight – like everything I did was wrong. UGH! I hate those kinds of days. We ended up not going on our trip, which made everyone grumpy. Then, when we were trying to figure out what to do with our day, we got a phone call from a local lodge group saying they had food they wanted to donate. So I took my girls and a couple of the boys down to pick it up – and it was a TON! Although it wasn’t a big outing or anything, it was enough to break up the day (and break up the bad moods!) During the drive, one of my boys shared with me a little about life leading up to Joy Ranch and it brought things back into focus for me. It made me think less of myself and the things that I was choosing to be grumpy over. It made me thankful to be here, with these boys. When we got back, we all were in better spirits. I don’t know whether to attribute that to getting out of the house for a bit, or the fact that I brought back massive amounts of food to teenage boys…either way, it worked.

 At night, we do Praise & Prayer time after dinner. We keep a notebook and write down any praises and prayer requests from the day and then we pray together. The guys don’t exactly love it, they’re still getting used to the idea. But, it’s part of our devotional time with them. That night, when we did praises, I said I thanked God for bad days. At least three of them got whiplash turning to look at me, like I had 3 heads. “That makes no sense!” they said. I explained that it’s all a part of living together – we have good and bad days. And the bad days remind me how much I need Jesus. I have nothing to give them without Him. I can’t be patient, kind, loving or gentle without Him. I can try awfully hard, but I will fail – and I do. I asked them to forgive me for my bad attitude that morning and they assured me they did. And my prayer request was that God would help me to be more like Him – to have His love, His patience, His kindness and His gentleness. So, yeah…bad days are a bummer, but they are also quite wonderful in a weird way. I need the bad days because I need the One who orders my days. And despite moments of wanting to cry that day, as I sat around the table with our boys that night I realized that the contentment and joy I have is so deep-seated, bad days can’t take that away. When all is said and done, I know we are exactly where God wants us to be and I know that these boys are something special. I’m glad to share the good AND the bad days with them.

Like many Americans, today we celebrated Thanksgiving. Many of our kids are on a home visit, but we have 3 of our boys here. We had a special breakfast this morning with everyone on campus, then we met back together again for a feast of a late lunch. There was SO much food! And we wanted today to be special for the kids that have to be here over the holiday break, so we used fine china and decorated the tables and enjoyed a meal all together. It may not have been the kids' first preference, but I think it was a nice day. Many of them helped serve and clean up and seemed in good spirits. It was a special day. To top it off, we took the kids to see Frozen at the local movie theater. Can I just mention that I have a new favorite kids' movie? :-) Just putting that out there.

With today being Thanksgiving, most of us are thinking about all the reasons we have to be thankful. Like I mentioned above, I'm learning that giving thanks happens on the good days and the bad. We ALWAYS have reasons to be thankful and remembering that takes our focus off our circumstances and directs it to the Giver of good things. Some of our boys are in some miserable circumstances, they often have trouble finding things for which they can give thanks and need some reminding. It is our hope that they realize, like the rest of us, that God is good and gives good gifts all. the. time. And that we all will choose thankfulness every day, not just on this one day a year.

And now, I am choosing to be thankful for the Christmas season which is upon us! YAY! It's not too hard for me to choose thankfulness on that one, seeing as how I've been listening to Christmas music for 2 months already. But now it's socially acceptable. So, bring on the twinkling lights, the smells of evergreen, the sugar cookies and the carols and the sweet celebration of our Savior's birth!

Busy Bees

Life (and the calendar) has been full, as I hear it typically is around here. The weekdays are filled with school, chores, running kids to appointments, youth group, Boy Scouts, Nerf gun wars, and working out/playing basketball at the wellness center. No two days ever look the same. Here are some highlights from the last month:

*Pumpkin Festival – it sounded fun and our girls had a blast, but not too many teenage boys want to sit in a corn kernel pile or go through a haystack maze (that's only 1 hay bale tall, mind you) or shop through the farmer's market. So, we didn't stay long and the rest of the day was pretty low-key.

* Lover's Leap – a local scenic spot in the mountains. We drove out and ate a picnic lunch (despite the cold mountain breeze.) The boys even let me take a picture of all of us together, with a little grumbling, but still...And I'll even let you see it!
Then we took them to a local candy store and let them all pick out a treat. After that, we headed to one of our boy's home church for their Fall Festival. I got to witness my first Cake Walk, which was fun. To the Buxtonites back home, you should totally do this at the next church fellowship event! There was the eat-the-donut-off-the-string competition, which our boys dominated. And the girls loved all the little prizes and candies they got! It was a fun way to spend an afternoon.

* New River Trail – a 57 mile (or something like that) trail along the New River. We did only a mile or two. It's something I'd definitely like to explore some more!

* Leaf Raking – Not all of our weekends are about fun and going on outings. There's work to be done, too, and we want the kids here to understand that life is about more than self. This past weekend, we did some leaf raking at a local church for most of the morning. Then I got the privilege of taking 4 of our boys to get haircuts. It was fun listening to them try to decide what hair cut to get (I mean, really...aren't there only a couple of choices for guys???) When one of the hair stylists there asked me if they were all mine, I sputtered a bit. Not sure what to say, I stammered around for words and finally just explained that we all live at Joy Ranch. She smiled knowingly and said "then yes, those are your boys." I said I'd claim them. I guess I'm going to have to think of a response the next time someone asks me that.

* Our “family” has expanded by 2. We've had a new resident added to our mix. He's not "new" really - he moved over here from another cottage. He knows the ropes around here, so it's not quite the same as if it were a brand new resident, but it still takes some adjusting for everyone, as it does in every situation where a new person is added to the dynamic. Our other newest addition is Tonka, our Boxer/Lab mix puppy. He's the sweetest little guy and is handling this overwhelming environment quite well. He's definitely Jason's dog, though. He follows him around everywhere and whimpers a bit when he leaves. If Jason's not around, Tonka will go pull out some of Jason's clothes and make a little bed out of them. It's the only thing that calms him down. The boys love him, so I think we'll keep him. :-)

* Sports – One of our boys has started the wrestling season and two more will be starting a recreation league basketball team. So, life is busy with running back and forth to practices and will soon be busier as tournaments start and the basketball league begins.

* A night “off” – from cooking, at least. Two of our boys cooked dinner and dessert, giving me the night off from the kitchen. I was very impressed with their commitment to seeing the project through and the taste of their meal. The menu consisted of Taco Soup and Jalapeno Poppers, which are jalapenos filled with cream cheese and wrapped in bacon. I actually tried one of the poppers and am proud to announce I still have a fully functioning mouth, but it was a close call. I thought for sure I burned my tongue and esophagus permanently! The dessert was a cookie dough dip and vanilla wafers. It was a big hit with everyone. We may have to do that again…

* A transition…again. We are in the process of changing leadership. Our director is stepping down to pursue some other things the Lord has for him. He still will live next door and volunteer here, so he’s not leaving, but his role is changing. His wife will continue to be the house parent in the girls’ home until they find a couple to fill that role. One of the reasons for our director’s decision is a new vision Joy Ranch is pursuing. They are working towards becoming a licensed foster agency, which means we could place kids in foster homes, as well is train and license foster parents and provide support for them. This is an exciting venture and I can’t wait to see it unfold! One of the requirements for licensing is that the director have experience in the foster care system and our current director has none. He wants to see the ministry expand in this way, so he has decided to step back in order for things to progress. So, we are currently working to find a new Executive Director who can lead the way in this new endeavor. We have not been here long, but we have so enjoyed working under this director. I’ve never had a boss like him and we will definitely miss his leadership here. At the same time, we have really great people leading the way here, too, so we feel very happy to be a part of what’s going on here.

* Wild West Day – Every year the ministry has a Wild West theme night. We have a big chili cook-off and a band comes in and we square dance the night away. We had a blast! I think Jason danced more here than he did at our wedding! He says he can’t stand that kind of music, but you wouldn’t have known that to watch him. And I couldn’t stop smiling or laughing – I was having a grand old time. It was a fun night, for sure!

 And of course, there are lots of funny moments. One of our boys likes to copy Evy’s signature move: Thumb in mouth, hand on belly button. Let’s just say it’s cuter when the 4 year old does it. And there’s the boy who likes to randomly walk around with his wrestling head gear on. There’s the one who likes to make up random songs about things or people here. In fact, as I write this, he is “playing” guitar and singing a made up song about me liking cheesy Hallmark Christmas movies (which I may or may not have on right now.) There was the moment we drove by a gravel pit and a kid yelled out “MOUNT RUSHMORE!” There are the other staff members who keep things going and know just when to inject some humor because we all need it. (Have I mentioned that our relief house parents are the best?! If not, let me take a minute to tell you – they are fantastic! And they have a killer sense of humor that is just what I need when we make the switch on or off duty – or sometimes in the middle of the week when I just need a laugh to keep things in perspective.)

And there are endearing moments, like when the boys teach our girls new things (except when it involves passing gas or their bathroom phrases – those are not so endearing.) Or when the boys help calm the girls down or distract them from crying, instead of getting frustrated with them. Or when the boys get excited to tell you something, whether it’s about their day or a funny story they heard or the video game they just played. There are the moments when the girls sit next to them on the couch and read a book or get the boys to play tea party with them. Or the moments when you realize the boys “get it.” One resident embroidered his Bible cover with a cross. Inside the cross is a red zig-zag pattern. When he showed to us, he explained that he filled it in that way to symbolize the “messiness” of salvation – that Jesus bled and died and it wasn’t pretty, and neither are we in our sinful state. Wow. And this from a kid who is newly saved.

So, there’s another snapshot of our life here. Never a dull moment. Thanks for following along with us. It blows my mind that so many people are interested in what we’re doing, but we’re thankful to have you along for the ride!

Saturday, November 23, 2013

It's a whirlwind life...

WHEW! I can't believe how the time has flown since I last updated this blog! So much for trying to keep up with it weekly, right?

This is just a short entry tonight, to let you know why it's been so long. As you can imagine, life gets busy here. No two days are ever the same so finding time to write is difficult. Another delay in my blog posting is because I am submitting my entries to some of our administration. I want to be sure I do this the right way and would never want to put our boys in danger in some way, so I make sure that what I post online is approved. It takes a couple of days to have them read it and get back to me, so while I have written a couple blog entries to post, it may be a couple of days before I can actually post them. I do have 2 posts in the works and will hopefully be able to post them this week.

In the meantime, I had a couple of sweet exchanges with my girls this week that I wanted to write down - mostly so I will remember them in the future, so bear with me if this is boring to you! :-)

Yesterday, while helping Evy get dressed for the day, the following conversation took place:
Evy - "Mumma, do you know what's exquisite?"
Me (laughing) - "No, Evy - what?"
Evy - "You are, Mumma!"
I don't know where she ever picked up the word "exquisite" but I was quite impressed. And whose heart wouldn't melt from a comment like that?!

Tonight, while putting the girls to bed and praying with them, this conversation took place:
Ellie - "Did God maked us, Mama?"
Me - "Yes, baby, God made ALL of us."
Ellie - "God maked me and me sister?"
Me - "Yes, NaNa. God made you and your sister and Mommy and Daddy. And you know what's great? He gave us all to each other to be a family. Isn't that great?!"
Ellie - "Yes. And God maked my toothbrush?"
While it made me chuckle, it also made me thank God for her tender little heart and her sensitivity to things of God, even at such a young age. May that always be so.

I find that so much of this blog is about life with the boys. I know that's what many people want to know about and I am happy to share it because I love the boys and our life with them. But, I love our girls and I don't ever want them to get lost in the cracks. The life we have here is chaotic and has been a challenge for them to get used to, as is expected. Having to suddenly share your parents with 7 teenage boys is a lot to take in. They have been AMAZING - I can't say that enough. They are a delight to my heart. It's challenging for us to balance our roles as parents and house parents and we fail at it more often than I'd like. So, I want to be sure to give them room and to let them know they have a big spot- in our hearts and lives and here on this blog. I love my girls and I don't want them to ever doubt that, no matter where the Lord leads us and who He brings into our lives. So, thank you for bearing with me and listening to my mommy heart!

Until next time...

Monday, October 14, 2013

Snakes and snails and puppy dog tails...

Supposedly, these are the things of which little boys are made. Having been an only child and a mom to two little girls, I could never speak from experience on this. In my short time as a house mom to a bunch of boys, I'd have to say this is true, but limiting. Endlessly amused by bodily functions (namely flatulence) needs to be added to the list somehow. There is a lot I'm learning about guys right now. It's fun and interesting to see what interests them, how they process things, how they resolve conflict, how they relate...and how different all of that is from girls! No doubt about it, God made males and females differently. Not wrong, just different...
As I mentioned before, we have 6 boys. Two are in middle school and 4 in high school. Most of them have been here awhile - long enough to know the rules and how things work here. Our newest one has been here for almost 6 weeks and our "oldest" one has been here for 4 years. Overall, things are pretty mellow in our home because they have been here for awhile.
Our first weekend on duty by ourselves was September 28 and 29. It wasn't a home visit weekend, so we had all 6 boys. We saw an ad for the Shockley Old Timey Days, a display of farming in the "old days." We got to see blacksmithing demonstrations, horse-drawn plowing, and other old time displays. It was a pretty uneventful trip, which was good considering it was our first time taking them out anywhere.
The next weekend (October 5-6) was a home visit weekend, so 2 of our kids went home for the whole weekend and one went for a day visit on Saturday. When it comes to planning activities/outings for the boys, it's usually up to us as the house parents. But sometimes, events come up that the whole ministry attends. It may be a fundraiser, a church visit, or a community event but we are encouraged to go so people can put faces with the Joy Ranch name. This past weekend was one of those events: the Pulaski Tractor Parade. This is country. Our neck of the woods is definitely out in the country - and I mean *country.* Pretty much the only radio stations that come in around here are Christian, country or bluegrass. This area has a section known as The Crooked Road which is, I think, a long stretch of road that you can travel to find numerous bluegrass festivals and concerts. (The jury's still out on how I feel about bluegrass. I'll save that for another blog post, perhaps.) And I think Jason and I might be some of the only ones in our house without a pair of cowboy boots. (I wonder if I could ever convince Jason to wear a pair...I can't see it, but you never know, right?) So, I hope you get what I mean when I say we're in the country. And the local culture around here reflects that, for sure. Hence, the Tractor Parade.
It's just like it sounds - a parade of tractors. And the Joy Ranch kids ride a wagon in it. It's about a 2 hour ride and they get to snack on donuts and visit with each other. This particular Saturday, however, was a 'chilly' 85 degrees and it made for a long ride. (Jason is now, quite literally, a redneck.) After the parade, everyone comes back to Thornspring Pastures for their Farm Fest. Despite the heat (hey, I'm a Yankee - gimme a break!) it was a fun day. We had lunch there, walked through the corn maze, listened to bluegrass music, bounced on the pillow trampoline and just had fun together. It was a good way to spend a sunny Saturday!
That evening was spent playing video games. If you can believe it, Jason bought a Batman game for the PlayStation. The guys stayed up late playing that - and Jason *may or may not* have stayed up into the wee hours of the morning playing after they went to bed. Video games are just another thing I don't think I understand...Oh, well.
This past weekend with the boys was jam packed! We got up first thing on Saturday and all but 2 of them played in the 3-on-3 Basketball Tournament fundraiser for the Ranch. I took the other two birthday shopping, as one of them turned 16 on Friday and the other was turning 16 on Sunday. We had fun picking out what they wanted to buy with their birthday money. When we got home, we met up with the others, ate a quick lunch and then they headed to a car show in North Carolina. I was hoping to go, but one of our boys had to stay back and I had 2 sick kiddos, so that settled that. That evening, Jason took the boys out for Mexican food while I took care of our sick little girls. Sunday was just as busy. The ministry went on a church visit to a little church in Mouth of Wilson, Va, followed by lunch. Since that took up most of the day, we let our birthday boy pick the rest of the day's activities. He is a huge super hero/fantasy fan - so much to Jason's delight, he wanted to watch the Batman trilogy. That was interrupted long enough for a pizza party at dinner and then they were back at it. We topped the day off with homemade ice cream cake (our second in 2 days, since both birthday boys requested it!) And then they went to bed, but not without several of them telling us they love us and would miss us on our day off. Melt my heart...
One interesting thing that our director pointed out this weekend was that these two birthday boys represent our "newest" and "oldest." Friday's birthday boy is our newest resident, who came here just a few days before we did. Our other birthday boy has been here for just over 4 years. That's 4 birthdays he has celebrated here, with probably 4 more to go and he ages out of the program (more if he does the transitional living program.) One thing I want to do in our home is make the days special - birthdays, holidays and even just random ordinary days. While so many other people get to celebrate these days with family and friends, our boys are in a children's home. And while they are, I want to make it as enjoyable for them as I can. I want them to have fond memories. We don't get into extravagant decorations or parties or things, but we do want to send the message loud and clear that they are special, they are loved. Not only by us, but by the God who made them and knows every little detail about them. Based on comments the birthday boys made this weekend, I think they are getting that message.
So, there you have our first three weekends with the boys. I wish I didn't have to cover so much time in one blog entry. They do so many funny or crazy things and I think "I need to put that in the blog!" In fact, one of them will ask every time he does something funny "Is that going in your blog?" But by the time I sit down to type, there's so much to cover. They keep us laughing - and sometimes crying or pulling our hair out. But we sure do love them more than we can even explain. And we wouldn't want to be anywhere else than here with these guys!

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Welcome to Joy Ranch!

Let me take a moment to explain a little bit about Joy Ranch here, before we jump into the day-to-day life. You already know we're working at a children's home and you may have an idea about what that means, but I want to share with you about Joy Ranch in more detail.

First, their website is: and I would encourage you to spend some time checking it out and watching the videos. Most of what you’ll find here is taken from the website. Joy Ranch exists “to provide a welcoming, safe, caring and Christ-centered environment to meet the spiritual, physical, emotional and social needs of children and their families in crisis.”

The vision for Joy Ranch began over 50 years ago with Reverend Richard McHenry and his wife, Mary. They received a letter regarding a troubled young boy without a permanent home. They were asked to take this boy to their Bible camp. They immediately agreed and saw the boy thrive. Soon, they saw a more urgent need to find the boy a home. Thus, Joy Ranch was born. The McHenry’s stepped out in faith and trusted the Lord to provide the means for a children’s home. And provide He did! Today, we have 5 cottages on 62 acres of land and have served over 5000 children in need. Our director today has a deep desire to create a culture of excellence, a concentration on ministry and a commitment to team work. And that is exactly what you’ll find here!

We provide short-term and long-term housing to children in crisis. Some are privately placed and others are placed by the department of social services. Some have parents who are incarcerated, hospitalized or have passed away. Some have parents who are involved but can’t take care of them. Others have family members who have stepped in the gap. We have a boys’ home and a girls’ home as well as a transitional living program. We take children ages 5-17, though currently the majority of our kids are in their teens. Each home can house up to 8 children and a set of house parents.

Miller cottage is our home. We have 6 boys right now, ages 12-16. As their house parents, we are in the home all the time with them. We fix their meals, do shopping for the home, take them to appointments, take them on outings, etc…We are “on duty” 5 days (24 hours) and “off” for 2. During our off days, the relief house parents come in and do the things we typically do the rest of the week. They have their own bedroom in the house for when they are on duty. We have our own apartment…technically two – we sleep in a small upstairs apartment during our “on duty” days so that we can be close by and hear if someone is sick or playing PlayStation in the middle of the night or things like that. When we’re off, we stay in our downstairs apartment, which is much more like your average apartment. We’re pretty content with both spaces. Regardless of whether we’re upstairs or down, we have plenty of room and nice comfy beds on which to sleep. And the girls have special “upstairs toys” and “downstairs toys” to help them with transitions. Now, to work on getting me some special “upstairs toys” and “downstairs toys” … :-)

A typical day means waking up at 6am to get the guys breakfast. They get up between 6:15 and 6:30, get ready, eat and head off to school. During their school day, we have some down time, but each day is different. Provided no one is sick, suspended from school or having to be run to an appointment, we can use that downtime how we choose. We do have paperwork and meal prep to be done as well as the weekly grocery shopping. There are always things that pop up, so we’ve learned already not to count on having “free time” every day while the kids are at school. And that’s ok with us – part of the territory. When the day is free, however, we take the girls to the library or the playground or the pool at the wellness center (where the ministry has a membership.) The first round of boys get home at 2:50 and they have free time until the second round gets off the bus at 4/4:15. They all have an afternoon snack and some free time before jumping into chores and study hall. Then it’s dinner, evening chores and an evening activity. Usually that’s something like going to the wellness center to play ball, playing video games, watching a movie, going out, special events, etc…Then it’s time for showers and bed. After they go to bed, it’s time for Jason and me to wrap up the day’s paperwork and get prepped for the morning before going to bed ourselves. It is a full day – and no two days look the same. You never know what’s going to pop up! Nonetheless, we love it. And we are eager to get to know our boys better and just experience life with them. So there you have it - this is what Joy Ranch is all about. Next up, meeting the boys and seeing the wonderful chaos that is life with them.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

A New Beginning!

The first two weeks here were jam-packed! We were warned it would be pretty intense and everyone was (and continues to be) very understanding about it all. They know it’s a lot to take in and they have been nothing but encouraging and supportive of us as we learn the ropes here. We did a whole host of trainings. We met all the administrative staff and had orientation with each of them. We read policies and procedures, state regulations, staff and resident handbooks and filled out lots of paperwork. We did CPI certification to teach us crisis-prevention strategies and some passive restraint techniques (which we will hopefully never have to use!) We attended a suicide prevention class, CPR/First Aid training and three days’ worth of medication administration training (complete with tests!) And all the while, our girls were in the loving and capable hands of a family member, who graciously volunteered her time to stay with the girls every day for those first 2 weeks. What a blessing!

When the classroom trainings were completed, we began our in-cottage training. For two weeks we were in the cottage with another set of house parents, learning how all the stuff we learned in the classroom fleshes out in the cottage. I think for the past month, Jason and I have felt like our brains have turned to mush – there is just SO much to learn and remember! But everyone assures us it will be second nature soon enough.
In the midst of learning all this stuff, we’ve been blessed to get to know some pretty wonderful people. First, there are the boys in our cottage. I’ll tell you more about them later, but we love getting to know them and building relationships. Then, there are the people with whom we work. Our supervisor and his wife were the previous house parents in Miller Cottage. I honestly don’t know how we could make this transition without them. They have two little girls and a baby boy and our girls adore their kids! And they have really made us feel so welcome here. They are willing to answer any questions and are available at just about any time you need them. There are the relief house parents, another couple who just happens to be from Maine (how funny is that?!) They have gone out of their way to teach us and help us. And these people I’ve mentioned are representative of the rest of the staff here. Every single person here has been so welcoming, so helpful and so encouraging. One of the things that really impressed us on our interview here is that it’s an all-hands-on-deck operation. They ask you to come here with a teachable heart and a willingness to be flexible, but it works that way on both ends. If the ministry is short-staffed, everyone jumps in to help – all the way up to the director and his wife. No one just sits in an office all day and expects the cottage staff to work themselves to death. We saw the HR Director out working with the horses. We saw the director and his wife serving as house parents. Everyone is part of a team here, a family. And everyone is willing to do what needs to be done. This is one of the things that impressed us most about this place and we are so excited to be a part of that.


Friday, September 27, 2013

God Answers

We built our home on family land in 2010. Selling was not an option for a number of reasons, but we knew nothing about being landlords. And how could we do it from such a distance? There were moments that we felt this was impossible – that the house would be our undoing. But God placed some fantastic people in our lives…people who knew what to do. Some couples in our church who are experienced landlords were an incredible help to us in getting the ball rolling and figuring out how to rent our property. My parents were more than gracious in offering to be on-site landlords. This was not lost on us – we knew that it was incredibly hard on them to watch this process unfold. And on top of that, to help us wrap up the details so we could move hundreds of miles away…well, that’s just heart-wrenching. As a side note, my parents (who have been our neighbors for the last 5 years) were amazing in all of this. We had some tough conversations and some very emotional moments, but we couldn’t have asked for better support and love than we got from them. Giving them a shout out in this blog doesn’t begin to cover how thankful we are for them, but it’s worth mentioning! With all the help we received in getting our house ready to rent, we began to see that God was taking care of the “impossible.” The people who were helping us navigate the rental process encouraged us to list our home as available for October 1 move-in. We were hoping for September and they told us that was impossible. We were ok with adjusting the date if we needed to, but we gave it a try. We posted it on craigslist and within a few days, a woman called and said she was very interested and would like to come look that afternoon and was even ready to make a deposit! And when were they available to move in? September! After going through a process of reference, credit and employment checks, we agreed to rent the home to them. Once again, God blew us away!

Our next hurdle: how on earth can we make this move? Financially, it seemed impossible. But, we continued on, knowing that God had taken care of all the other “impossible” details in this and that if we were supposed to be going to Joy Ranch, He would get us there. We didn’t tell anyone about this hurdle. And as if God hadn’t already blessed our socks off, He then provided abundantly through the prayerful and financial gifts of support through our church family. We were humbled through all of this. None of this was because we deserved it – it was all simply because God was at work being the Giver of good gifts that He is. We are so undeserving!

In the midst of all this, we were purging, packing and cleaning like it was our job! We were able to get rid of quite a bit of stuff and even made a little extra money for tolls and gas in the process. Those few weeks were a whirlwind of activity and emotion! We made visits and said our good byes to as many people as we could on such a limited time frame. I remember it being such a strange mix of emotions – excitement, nervousness, sadness, happiness…but overall, a sense of calming peace. I knew (and still know) that this is where we were supposed to be going. I will forever treasure those last days in Maine, though because we made some great memories with some special friends and family and no matter the distance I know those relationships remain.
On August 31st we got up early, said a tearful "good bye" to my parents and set out on our new adventure! We stretched the trip out a bit, to make it easier on our girls. We stayed a night in Pennsylvania, a night at Jason's parents' house and then pulled into Joy Ranch on the evening of September 2nd. We had shipped out belongings down with a moving company and they weren't due to arrive until the 4th. Since we were without most of our things, we couldn't move into our new apartment. We stayed in McHenry Cottage for a few days, which is currently used for guests and work teams. (So those of you that would like to visit us and check out what we're all about down here, let us know and we can potentially fix you up with a place to stay!) That first night, we enjoyed dinner at a local Mexican restaurant with our supervisor, his wife and kids. It was a nice way to spend our first evening here and our girls immediately hit it off with theirs. When we got back to our cottage, we settled in for a quiet night as a family. The next few weeks of training promised to be very full. We knew that with the dawn of a new day, life would be changing for our little family...

Thursday, September 26, 2013

A Journey Into the Unknown

This journey technically began a very long time ago, but where does one begin? When we met? When we both came to know Jesus? When we were born? When our parents met? You see, it’s hard to pinpoint the beginning, but to spare you unnecessary detail, we’ll try to narrow things down a bit…

Jason and I met at The Fold Family Ministries in Vermont back in 2006, serving as “disciplers” (read: big brother/big sister) to troubled teens in a home setting. We loved our first taste of residential ministry! We both met Jesus in our early years and knew He had called us to live a life for Him, one that would be different. Fast forward a few years and we had married, settled in Maine, had two little girls and were living the “American dream.” We thought we were happy. But then God rocked our world a bit. Things got really hard in a number of areas of our lives: finances, marriage, mental/emotional health. We were driven to our knees. We realized God was moving us in a different direction.

So, in February of 2013, we set out on a journey into the unknown (to us, at least.) Thankfully, the God we serve is all-knowing and nothing in our lives surprises Him. We started reflecting on our desire to work with children and teens and how much we enjoyed residential ministry. Thus began an online search to find opportunities as house parents. In our search, we discovered something called “children’s homes” which was a new concept to us. These places exist to provide for children whose home lives are unstable, for a variety of reasons. Each ministry is different in the services they offer and the groups to which they minister. Some come from situations of abuse and neglect, some have parents who are incarcerated or institutionalized and some have parents who have passed away or who have abandoned them. We knew the moment we “stumbed upon” these programs that we wanted to be involved in them. We started sending out resumes and filling out applications right away. At the first place we applied, God slammed the door closed, for whatever reason. The same place posted another opening shortly after and we applied once again, only to be turned down again! Feeling slightly stung and confused, we gave up. We thought perhaps we had misunderstood God.

About a month later, we both were wondering why we gave up at all since the burden was still on our hearts. So, we started searching and sending applications out again. We were praying that God would make the way abundantly clear and slam all doors but one. We thought we had it narrowed down to “the one,” a ministry in Oklahoma that was seeking relief house parents. The set up sounded perfect, the people were extremely nice and helpful. They invited us to come for an interview. At this point, I (Michelle) freaked out. They were very serious about us joining their team and we knew that if we were to go out there, it would be saying that we were sure ourselves. I just wasn’t sure I could be *that* far away from everything and everyone I knew. We talked to several couples who had been or currently were house parents and we knew the demands would be great. Could we do such a job and such a big move without knowing a soul? Could we even afford to go out for the interview, never mind the move?! And just after our second Skype interview with this ministry (the interview where they invited us to come for a visit) we received an e-mail from a place called Joy Ranch in Virginia. We had applied there a week or two prior, but never heard anything in response. And then “suddenly” on the very same day we were asked to come to Oklahoma, we heard from them. Now what?!

 Since I was so hesitant, we asked the people in OK for another week to think and pray about this opportunity. At the end of the week, we felt a sense of peace – that if God was calling us somewhere, we had to follow, even if it meant moving to a different time zone and not knowing a soul. That was scary! But, we were confident that God would provide for our needs; financially, spiritually and emotionally. So, we contacted the ministry only to be told that they were preparing to interview another couple and would get back to us in a couple weeks if the position was still vacant.

Wait…say what, God?! I thought I understood…I was okay with going halfway across the country, if that’s what He wanted. Isn’t that what He wanted? I was kind of disappointed at this news. We were confused. Again. But God wasn’t.

While we waited for that ministry to get back to us, we decided to continue on with the other prospects. We had a couple of phone calls with the people at Joy Ranch and a Skype interview that went really well. We started to get excited. Virginia would be a perfect fit. If we were going to uproot our whole family, wouldn’t it be nice to be close to some family? To have some people we knew close by? And wouldn’t it be nice for Jason to be back in his home state for a bit, an hour away from his parents for the first time in 7 years? It would be a big change, but not nearly as big and scary as some of the other options. I wrestled with that for a bit because I thought following God meant having to go far, far away and be removed from everything and everyone we knew. It sounds silly, but I thought Virginia was the “easy” way, so it certainly couldn’t be where He wanted us. So, we waited to see what He was going to do.

Lo and behold, the staff at Joy Ranch invited us to come down for an interview. We told them that Jason had a week off July 13-19 and we could make an impromptu trip down, if that worked. They said it not only worked, it was the one week out of the whole month that all the staff would be there so we could meet everyone! How “convenient” right? Now, understand something – at Jason’s previous job, vacation time must be requested at the beginning of October of the year prior. This means that Jason put in for this particular week off in October of 2012...with absolutely no idea that this was coming. In fact, going back into ministry wasn’t even on our radar!

We began making plans for this trip to Virginia. What do you know, the day we left for the trip the other ministry from Oklahoma e-mailed AND called to tell us the position was still open and invite us down for an interview! Not sure what that meant, we informed them of our travels and asked if we could talk to them when we returned.

We set out to interview for the girls home, but upon our arrival we were told that it could be either the girls’ home or the boys’ home. Jason was in love right away. I was a basket case. I was hoping for the same “feeling” I got when I interviewed at the ministry in Vermont – that certainty that *this* was where I was supposed to be. That feeling didn’t come. I was confused. Is this where God wanted us or was it Oklahoma? At the end of our weekend there, they offered us the position and we asked to have a week to think about it before committing. The entire trip back to Maine was spent with me expressing my concerns and confusion and Jason expressing his certainty that this was where we needed to be. I was still waiting for my feelings to convince me, which is rarely a good idea. It took the ladies at the pregnancy center (where I had been a volunteer for 5 years) to help me see what my dear husband had been trying to point out all along – that God’s hand was directing this path. My “aha” moment came with them. It was at that moment that I made the decision in my mind that Joy Ranch was the place for us. And as soon as I let that sink in, those feelings followed suit! After that moment, I never wavered. Not only that, I began to see with clarity the many ways God was swinging the doors wide open for this to happen! We immediately informed the staff at Joy Ranch that we were coming and began filling out the stack of paperwork they had sent home with us. There was one problem: our house.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

IrRASHional for Jesus

ir·ra·tion·al (adj.)

1. Without the faculty of reason; deprived of reason.

2. Without or deprived of normal mental clarity or sound judgment.

3. Not in accordance with reason; utterly illogical: irrational arguments. 

4. Not endowed with the faculty of reason: irrational animals.


Some might say the adventure we just began was irrational, ridiculous or crazy. After all, who gives up a nice house, a comfortable life full of lots of great relationships to move into a noisy home full of boys, knowing no one and with only a small basement apartment to call “our own?” The answer: we would! And we couldn’t be happier!
We want to share this adventure with you, so we created this blog to give a little background to this journey and give you a means to travel along with us. So, come on in to Miller cottage - currently home to 6 boys and the Rash family, and join us as we do life together at Joy Ranch!