“Is today a stable day?” Andrea (Andi) would ask. Ben and I would smile and be glad on the days that we could say yes.
A stable day, for Andi, was a day filled with feeding, caring for, riding, and cleaning up after horses.
Andi grew up navigating life with severe learning and emotional disabilities, struggling with multiple mental health diagnoses along with some significant medication side effects.
She is our niece and her life story began with an all too common tale of neglect and abuse going back well before she took her first breath.
Speed, meth, pot, cigarettes, and alcohol, worked against Andi's forming body, destroying all hope of a healthy “normal” life before she was even born.
Andi's mom had many run in's with social services and Andi's brother and sister had been removed from her mom's care just prior to her meeting and marrying my brother.
Having been reported for neglect again and concerned that she may lose her baby, Andi's mom decided that a change of scenery was in order. Andi was 7 months old when her mom and dad packed up most of what they had into a small trailer and headed east to a faith-based recovery center in Florida.
Andi's dad had heard of this place and had been trying to convince his wife that this was a place where healing happens, now she was on board with this idea they stacked all their dreams into the possibly that within this venture they could find help, rewrite their life stories and restore peace to their hurting family. After only a few hours of leaving Spokane they stopped in Coeur d'Alene Idaho. With the late start they'd gotten and a crabby baby to care for, they set up camp and called it a day.
At some point that night, Andi’s mom woke up, sleepy but unable to sleep. And, she was hungry. Knowing she could do something about her growling stomach, she quietly moved to the kitchen, to make herself some bacon. With the bacon nearly done she turned to grab a plate, as she struggled to maneuver in the tight space of the trailer, she bumped the handle of the frying pan. Burning grease spilled down the front of both her exposed legs. Screaming silently as to not wake her husband or their sleeping baby, she slipped out of the trailer and walked herself to a nearby hospital.
The intake nurse asked Andi’s mom question after question, revealing her bipolar and schizophrenia diagnoses her medications and her recent stay in a recovery unit. Even in excruciating pain, Andi's mom had an insatiable need for attention and a knack for creating ciaos. She stirred up a story convincing the nurses that her husband was an unfit parent and shouldn’t be left alone caring for her baby. After demanding that someone bring Andi to the hospital, the police were called in for an interview and eventually tasked with an infant welfare check.
The police arrived at the trailer and assuming that Andi's mom's concerns were honest. They stepped in with accusations regarding his care of this child. Despite Andi's dad's claims that he was of sound mind and more than able to care for his infant daughter, the police called in social services and Andi was swiftly taken away and placed in a temporary foster home.
The next day she was transferred back to her home state of Washington, where Child Services found her what they thought was a more permanent placement.
A week or so later, Child Serviced discovered that her care was once again lacking, an unannounced visit found Andi un-kept and un-cared for. Matted hair, formula stained clothes, an unchanged diaper, and a moldy formula bottle forced her social worker to remove her immediately and seek other arrangements.
With no other infant beds available, Andi was transferred from Spokane to Vancouver where her paternal grandparents were able to temporarily step in and give her the love and care that every infant deserves.
A few weeks later Andi’s parents sat in a Spokane courthouse waiting with sad hearts to learn of their verdict. The state appointed Guardian Ad Litem announced their recommendation to strip Andi’s mother of all parental rights. Because of many things, most not included in this story, the plan was to draft and enforce a restraining order that would separate Andi from any harm or influence her mother could have over her in future years. Andi's dad was awarded visitations with the opportunity to reinstate his parenting rights.
Andi’s dad had to make the impossible choice between caring for his wife or caring for his child. His faith drew him to stay with his wife and help her recover. He held on to the memory of the good days they had spent together and believed it was the only hope they had to ever be a family again.
Andi was 9 months of age when I met her for the first time. Washington Social Services had awarded Ben and I, a non-parental custodial agreement and flew me out to Vancouver.
I had two days to introduce myself to Andi and then I would be flying her to Iowa to meet her new family.
Once the dust had settled on the court proceedings Andi’s mom and dad packed up once again and were off to Florida with the prayerful hope of healing that might, just possibly, lead to restoration.
As Andi was settling in to her new home in Iowa, her mom and dad were not settling in to their plans in Florida. Worse became worse and Andi’s mom was arrested bringing an end to the hope of restoration.
Andi’s first and second year were full of challenging behaviors but shortly after her third birthday her behaviors elevated from challenging to concerning and at the tender age of 4 she experienced her first mental health related hospitalization.
A year or so later her psychiatrist advised us to have Andi move in with her dad and his new wife, in hopes that the behaviors that were thought to be caused by her Reactive Attachment diagnosis (one of many diagnoses) would soften.
They didn't and Andi was admitted to a child behavior center, where she was known as the youngest child to ever destroy a safe room.
Post discharge, she moved back in with us for a time before trying again to settle in with her dad and step mom.
After Andi had threatened her step mom's extended family they felt they had no way to keep her or those around her safe. With all of us agreeing that Ben and I were better able to provide the oversight needed to give Andi the best shot at success, it was determined that she would be moved back to our care.
Her early diagnosis and interventions seemed to make little difference in her behaviors. Her school records verified the need for physical restraining several times a day to keep her and others out of harm’s way, in what was referred to as a level 5 classroom. At this point in her life Andi had the support of her dad and his new wife, her Uncle and Aunt, that she knows as mom and dad, her psychiatrist, her psychologist, her therapist, her social workers, her teachers, her paras, her trackers, her pastors, her church and her paternal brothers and sisters. All of us working to help her gain ground for peace and normalcy, but her behavior and ability to cope in this world were not improving.
The news of her coming back home to live with us was met with mixed emotions. The memories of chaos and stress were still fresh in our minds and although we all loved Andi very much we were all nervous for the change.
I contacted the school where she would be attending and after records were transferred I met with the group that would be Andi's new "wrap" team. The school requested we keep her home until a para could be hired, trained and brought up to speed on Andi's care. It was during this time that Andi's Papa and Nana decided to give her a special gift. It was a gift that would end up changing her life, and changing our family in a most surprising and extraordinary way.
On November 28th, 2010, Andi was given a riding lesson.
Her first lesson was with an old, but not too tired, grey gelding. Andi’s mind settled in a way that we had never seen before as she rode this horse with a calm confidence. Before leaving the Grand Marias Stables that day, Ben and I signed Andi up for two more weeks of lessons and by the third week we were convinced that Andi needed to live in a barn... so we leased Freida Mae, a 27 year old mare with asthma.
Andi’s metamorphosis began immediately. She had, to our amazement, very little need for correction when out at the stables. Andi was not only developing as a ranch hand and a rider, but she was being changed by the power of God and by her relationship with a horse.
We witnessed first hand her willingness to complete a task. Her desire to care for and learn more about horses increased with each visit. She wanted to clean buckets, clean hooves and clean stalls, often asking if she could do even more. "Can I please stay longer and clean up poop today?" This is an actual quote, and for us it was simply amazing.
Andi began to improve in her thought processing, comprehension and cooperation. We were thrilled to see this changed behavior begin to linger well after the lesson had ended.
It wasn't long before her success at the stables began to positively impact her time at home and at school. Three months after leasing Freida Mae, Andi progressed out of an isolated setting for emotionally disabled children and was spending much of her school day in a ‘regular’ class room with para support. As a 5th grader and for the first time in her school career she had overcome her explosive behaviors enough to have academics introduced to her IEP (Individual education plan).
Did you catch that! She was being taught academics and not just behavior modification!
Andi is fortunate, in that we, with the help of her dad and step mom and her grandparents, we were able to invest in a life changing, unconventional type of “therapy”. One that wasn't covered by her medical insurance or able to be prescribed by her team of doctors.
Equipping the Called
Ben, Andi and I dove headfirst into the world of horses. Four months after Andi's first riding lesson we were horse owners. We bought Ruby, our sweet little dun mare at a local boarding facility and kept her there; surrounded by the support we needed to be successful first time horse owners.
During one of our many weekly visits to MonteRay Stables, the owner asks if I would help her out with a middle school field trip. Assuming I would be in charge of sack lunches and bathroom breaks, I agreed. Horses were still a new experience for me and I had yet to actually spend much time with one.
Arriving early at the ranch I met with the team of volunteers that had been recruited for the day’s activities. Krista, the ranch owner, handed out assignments and then it was my turn. Glancing up at me she said, "Caryl, you're going to be in here with me, leading Levi."
"Oh no!" I replied, “No, that is not a good idea."
Krista smiled, "You'll be fine, I'll be in the center of the arena and all I need you to do is stay beside Levi and his riders, help them mount and dismount and listen to my directions."
The kids arrived and while they were divided up into three groups to travel through the three stations, a said a quick little prayer, begging for courage.
My first rider was a young boy who was truly more afraid than I was. His body shook as I helped him mount. You could see his legs tremble even after he settled into the saddle. He smelled of stale urine and wore a sad vacant gaze.
After several laps around the arena at a walk, my rider was starting to relax. He loosened his grip on the saddle horn and sat back in his seat, just ever so slightly.
The other riders had moved up to a trot. I asked my rider, "Do you want to trot?" His grip and his face tightened and with no words spoken he clearly told me "NO!".
A few steps more and a horse trotted by us. Levi, apparently bored with the slower pace, decided it was time to trot and to my surprise he did, with me trailing behind. I jogged quickly to catch up with him and with a simple "WALK" yelled by Krista, he slowed back down. When I looked up into the eyes of my rider, my gaze was met with a nervous little smile, not the fear or tears I was expecting.
"That was exciting." I laughed, "Should we do that again, on purpose?"
He gave me a slight little nod and I took Levi's lead and stated to jog, Levi took the cue and jogged beside me. That's when it happened. My riders face exploded with a smile too true and huge to hide and it was paired with a giggle. It's a giggle that seems to happen anytime a child trots on a horse they have learned to trust. He was so proud of himself. The two of us took a moment to bask in his special victory.
It was time to switch stations and before the end of the day I would walk beside Levi, serving two other kiddos, both like my first rider, in need of a bit of encouraging and some respite through adventure.
After the kids said their goodbyes and loaded up for their bus trip home, the volunteers sat for a rest. Krista let out a sigh, "It's a lot of work but it's worth it, don't you think? Most of these kids would never get a chance to ride, and it's so good for them." We all agreed.
On my home from the ranch I thought about my first rider, you could tell that his life was not easy. Not even one of the other kids spoke with him or stood next to him. He was small in frame, spoke with simple words, and it appeared that small tasks too often became challenges and struggles.
I remembered his smile while he trotted on the back of Levi, the kind of smile you can't hide no matter how hard you try. Tears started flowing as the weight of the impact of the day became clear. How blessed I was to be a part of this boy's moment of courage, pure joy and brief respite.
My thoughts jumped back to Andi and how her life was continuing to be transformed by God through the nature of a horse.
A picture was emerging.
I pulled off the highway and said a prayer for the kids I had just served, asking God to protect and defend them and to keep the memory of today safe in their hearts, always ready to remind them of their courage.
A few more deep breaths and with my tears under control, I called Ben. "Hey, I'm on my way home. What an amazing day." I took a long pause to choke back the tears and said with a large dose of hesitancy, "I think we're supposed to start a youth ranch."
"Okay," Ben's replied. "Let's do it!" (For those of you who don't know Ben this was genuine not flippant or sarcastic.)
I thank God for the way my heart was stirred, the way my mind was challenged and the way God used me that day. A simple time of walking beside a child and a horse changed me and began the process of equipping me for God's emerging plan.
Piece by piece the details for the ranch came together. God, being ever-faithful, showed us time after time that this direction was right and that his plan for the ranch was good.
Starting 'without a pot to pee in' as my grandpa used to say, it wasn't long before we had a board of directors, a support team, a volunteer team, experienced handlers and Gem and Taz, our first two program horses.
We opened the ranch for one-on-one youth mentoring sessions in June 2011, the need was great, the kiddos came and we filled every mentoring spot we could open. We continue on today, welcoming all kids, regardless of their history, diagnosis, social or financial standings and at no cost to their families, to experience the ranch and all it has to offer; to meet our amazing staff and our extraordinary horses, and take hold of every opportunity to lean into their potential.
Shortly before her 14th birthday, Andi was interviewed by a local news program and when asked what she thought about horses she replied with a sweet smile, “Horses, well they changed my life actually. (You can watch this news clip by choosing the link below.)
This is our story, with humble beginnings and growing faith, Ben and I are the founders of Stable Days Youth Ranch, a place for mentoring kids and caring for horses.
God is our provider and Andi continues to be our inspiration.