Wednesday, September 26, 2007

You're Welcome, Unknown Colleague O' Mine

This isn't going into the clip file, and under ordinary circumstances I wouldn't even post it here. Not that there's anything wrong with it; I just prefer humorous pieces. Also it feels oddly wrong to me, writing a story where the government spokesperson is the sort-of Good Guy. It's like being trapped in one of those scary alternate universes where the men all wear black goatees.

But here's the thing: when I tried doing some online searches about these folks I found nothing (with one exception too minor to mention). So I'm thinking, if these people are for real then the next reporter who tries to do some preliminary background research on the Web will at the very least find this little blog post.

You're welcome, whoever you are. And if you don't exist, I'm sure this is neither the first nor the last pointless posting I've done.

Ranch of Dreams

On the surface, there’s nothing going on in Stafford Springs but a mundane zoning/school funding dispute.

The Ranch of the Risen Son is the name of a group that proposed to create a sort of therapeutic children’s work farm there. Rancher Donna Russell-Smith went to a zoning commission meeting in July, seeking approval to build on land out by Lake Mark. The commission rejected the application due to paperwork issues and concern over the impact the ranch’s 200 children would have on the school system.

If you walk through town asking the locals what they think, you’ll find plenty willing to speak about how they’re afraid the ranch might break their budget. “It would be a huge addition to school attendance rolls,” some will say, while others add, “And since they’re a non-profit, they won’t even pay property taxes.” You can use their names, if you write about that.

Just another school-funding dispute. But if you put your notebook away and ask questions in a low, off-the-record voice that promises not to name names, you’ll hear whispers of other concerns.

*

According to a promotional booklet titled The Ranch of the Risen Son, Inc: His Concept, “The Ranch … will be spread out over 200 acres of prime land in Connecticut and will house 200 children full time. The children will range in age from 8-18 and will be schooled on the property.” (Ranchers later explained they wrote that before they knew about Stafford Springs’ schools.)

Children at the ranch “will care for the horses and barnyard animals, grow and harvest hay, grow vegetables, make quilts, candles, etc..” The kids will be divided into groups of 10, spread out among 20 huge homes, each headed by “a married Christian couple.”

A section called Our Focus says “Our desire is to redeem the whole little person to the state that our Lord designed them to be … nurture will come from a Christian couple who will become Mom and Dad 24 hours each day in a log home beautifully designed for the children on a horse ranch and farm where they will remain until at least 18 years of age.”

No way, said Gary Kleeblatt, spokesman for the Department of Children and Families, when the Advocate called to ask what sort of requirements you’d have to meet to open a place like that in Connecticut. DCF’s policy is to try and reunite kids with their families; if that’s not possible, the department prefers adoption or foster homes over warehousing kids until adulthood.

Kleeblatt didn’t sound too enthusiastic about the size, either. “The Department [is moving] toward smaller, more community-based programs … serving five or six children each.”

*

The booklet talks about a horse ranch focusing on “hippotherapy,” riding horses to heal the emotional traumas of children whose families broke “down due to violence, drugs, alcohol abuse, mental illness, etc.” There’s also mention of a “behavior modification program” where kids earn privileges by working their way up through five levels. No details for how this works.

Finally, there’s a “Contact List” with a PO box in Middletown, and the names, phone numbers and e-mails of five people: Donna Russell-Smith, Carol Hamel and Mark and Ann Giangarra in Connecticut, and Honey Svoboda, whose cell phone number has a Pennsylvania area code.

*

If you walk through Stafford Springs asking what life would be like on the Ranch of the Risen Son you’ll hear nothing beyond the vagaries in the Ranchers’ booklet. But if you write the contacts listed therein, expressing an eagerness to learn about the ranch and its lovely horses, Donna Russell-Smith herself might get back to you and say “This is going to be the birth of something big.” The ranchers would be happy to chat the following week, but wouldn’t speak individually.

Svoboda was a no-show, but the ranchers from Connecticut met at Russell-Smith’s house in a shabby part of Middletown. The interview took place in a small dining room, barely lit by four oil lamps in wall sconces and a slightly larger one on a side table. Russell-Smith and Hamel did most of the talking; the Giangarras seemed there mainly for show.

The light made reading faces hard. More than half the discussion took place during those periods after Russell-Smith said “put your notebook away, don’t write this down, let me explain the background first.”

She didn’t explain much. Russell-Smith said the ranchers decided not to build in Stafford Springs after all. The land isn’t really suitable, they said, so they’re looking elsewhere in Connecticut. Eventually there is to be one ranch in each of the 50 states, but “the Lord said the first one has to be in Connecticut,” said Russell-Smith.

The ranchers know each other from church? “No,” she said. There’s no formal church behind this.

A few hundred acres of prime Connecticut horse land must be expensive. How will the ranchers get that money? “With loans,” Russell-Smith said.

The booklet mentioned that “there will be a log chapel on the grounds of the Ranch. All of the staff will have a personal relationship with our Lord. Each child will come to know that God is very real.”

However, Hamel hastened to add, although it will be a Christian camp “We won’t discriminate against Jews” or other religions. But will non-Christian children be required to attend services in the chapel?

Yes, said Russell-Smith, but they’re perfectly free to switch faiths once they turn 18 and leave the Ranch.

Kleeblatt, of the DCF, says regulations state “that the religious faith of each child shall be respected” and that kids “be given opportunities to participate in religious activities of his or her faith whenever possible.”

How will the five-level behavior modification system work? What sort of privileges does each level convey?

“That’s something we don’t want to write in the paper,” said Russell-Smith.

Well, what sort of things do the kids have to do? Obey the rules, Russell-Smith said. What are they?

“That’s not really something I want to get into,” said Russell-Smith. “People would pick it apart.”

What sort of things might make someone go down a level, then? “Disrespecting.”

What are the punishments for breaking the rules? “We don’t want to talk about that in the newspaper.”

*

We talked for an hour without talking about much. But the ranchers said that each child’s individuality will be respected. And there will be horses, and exercise, and 20 loving families with 10 kids apiece.

Or maybe not. “Please keep in mind that this entity has not applied for a license at this point,” said Gary Kleeblatt of the DCF.

20 Comments:

Anonymous A Moose said...

there’s a “Contact List” with a PO box in Middletown,

Holy crap!! I've got a PO Box in Middletown!!!

4:13 PM  
Blogger Jennifer said...

I always knew there was something funny about you. Moose. Fess up.

5:42 PM  
Anonymous A Moose said...

I always knew there was something funny about you. Moose. Fess up.

I would but...uh...ahem...we..uh.. .don't talk about that in the newspaper. Yeah, that's it, we don't talk about that in the newspaper....people would....uh...pick it apart, yeah, that's the ticket... Me and my wife, Morgan, who I've slept with, we'd have a loving home for 10 kids, as long as they kept up on their..uh..chores, yeah, that's it.

2:49 AM  
Anonymous smartass sob said...

I took the time to read your full article, (yes, just as I always do) and I'm bound to say that these people give me the "willies." I can't really put my finger on anything specific, other than their reluctance to give detailed answers to your questions, but...

It's "Christian" but not affiliated with any particular church or denomination? "Little persons"? Obeying the "rules"? They have to stay until age eighteen?

Is this a cult or a reform school? Or something more sinister? And what in hell does riding horses have to do with God, unless that's what Russel-Smith yells when she's riding one? (Forgive me - I once had a bad experience with a horsewoman named Smith.)

6:57 AM  
Blogger Jennifer said...

these people give me the "willies."

You're not the only one, Smartass.

7:07 AM  
Anonymous smartass sob said...

Ranch of the Risen Son

I wonder if that is "son" as in whoa, son, some horse fanciers' favorite way to address their animals?*





* Yes, I know - I'm probably goin' to Hell. (see ya there!)

7:07 AM  
Blogger Jennifer said...

The Son is Jesus.

If you wanted to comment on the actual Advocate site, I certainly wouldn't stop you! Ahem. Free speech and all that good libertarian stuff.

9:16 AM  
Anonymous smartass sob said...

The Son is Jesus.

No! You don't say? Tsk! Tsk! Goodnes me!


If you wanted to comment on the actual Advocate site,...


Oh, very well - if you insist. Hmm. Let's see. Well, for starters, the header at the top of the page is somewhat attractive; it is centered nicely and catches the eye. I like the way the sidebars and advertizing are arranged down the page on both sides of the main features. Some of the articles are interesting.... Oh! One thing I don't especially care for is the lack of profile photos for the various authors. In general though, it's a reasonably attractive site, I think. *







* :-)

10:58 AM  
Anonymous smartass sob said...

Go and look at the comments for your article at The Advocate's site. You are quite welcome, Chuckles. :-)

11:58 AM  
Blogger Jennifer said...

Thank you! It makes me look good--or at least less bad--in the eyes of Ze Boss, when he sees that people are interested enough to read and comment on a story of mine.

12:46 PM  
Blogger Anne O'Neimaus said...


To End


One thing I don't especially care for is the lack of profile photos for the various authors.

I REALLY dislike the fact that there is no convenient way to contact the webmaster, when the site throws an error (which it does just about every other time I visit). In fact, it is pretty difficult to get contact-information for anybody. I have taken to sending database-errors and other such stuff to the editors...

(Some of these errors I can reproduce at will, so we're talking a flawed design, not a processing glitch.)

In an issue closely related to smartass', I find it annoying in the extreme that there is no way to list all of Jennifer's articles (or most anyone else's, for that matter). Sure, there seem to be a couple of "regular columnists" who get preferential treatment and a standardized location on the main page; but every other contributor (even those with bylines) just drops off the radar if they don't happen to have a hot article in the current issue.


To Top

1:42 PM  
Anonymous smartass sob said...

In an issue closely related to smartass'...


Anne, I didn't intend my "comments" regarding "the actual Advocate website" to be taken all that seriously. Not that they weren't sincere, but mainly I was just being literal-minded in an effort to rattle Jennifer's cage, so to speak. That is to say, I was being a wiseacre.

2:42 PM  
Anonymous A Moose said...

Anne, I didn't intend my "comments" regarding "the actual Advocate website" to be taken all that seriously. Not that they weren't sincere, but mainly I was just being literal-minded in an effort to rattle Jennifer's cage, so to speak. That is to say, I was being a wiseacre.

Too late, you done got Anne all riled up. Duck, dammit, save yourself man!!

But, hey, at least you didn't see your mailing address in print in an article you'd rather not be associated with.

4:55 PM  
Blogger Jennifer said...

The address is technically public record, if anybody in the public wants to bother to go to Stafford town hall and check out that booklet. And I didn't list actual street names or PO box numbers.

5:42 PM  
Anonymous negatore said...

They have ponies, everyone loves ponies. Don't look over there, look at the nice ponies.

10:35 PM  
Anonymous A Moose said...

And I didn't list actual street names or PO box numbers.

Ok, so, perhaps I need to clarify. It was the subject of the article that I would not want to be associated with. The author of the article I have no prob with.

Wait a minute, they have ponies?

3:31 AM  
Anonymous A Moose said...

Hey, it's Tuesday, did your editor get it up yet?

6:16 AM  
Blogger Jennifer said...

Not until tonight, Moose. Even a redhead wearing tight clothes can't help them get it up before their allotted time. (I hope to Christ they're not reading this.)

My two stories for this week are kind of bleah anyway, though. I'm glad I'm leaving for vacation next week; I think I'm getting just a teensy bit burned out. Christ, I did a story on DRUG ASSET FORFEITURE and couldn't whip up a good bit out of that!

8:35 AM  
Anonymous A moose said...

Even a redhead wearing tight clothes can't help them get it up before their allotted time.

Oh dear god they must be dead then...just the above description is enough to run a flag to half mast.

Editor's name wouldn't be Bernie, by chance, would it?

My two stories for this week are kind of bleah anyway, though.

It has been noted you're into that double publication stuff of late.

Christ, I did a story on DRUG ASSET FORFEITURE and couldn't whip up a good bit out of that!

Not even "someone is losing their ASSet"..or something hokey of that vein?

9:34 AM  
Blogger Jennifer said...

Technically we're always supposed to do two stories in a week, unless one story is really big and time-consuming. It's just that in August I had a terrifying three-week dry spell where I could only scrape up one story per week. (The reason I have three stories this week is because one of them was held over from the previous week, when it was supposed to run.)

11:42 AM  

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