You're Welcome, Unknown Colleague O' Mine
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.
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.