Below is an article written by Kathryn Buckstaff, a free-lance writer based in Hollister, Missouri. The article appeared in the September 2000 edition of The Rotarian and is reprinted in its entirety.
On a sprawling ranch in the rolling hills of the Ozarks in Missouri, U.S.A., 16 boys with troubled backgrounds are building fences, feeding cattle, and getting a new lease on life. In the 18 years since Ken and Sheila Ortman built the Lives Under Construction (LUC) Boys Ranch near the town of Lampe, 153 boys between the ages of eight and 21 have gone through the program, which combines strong values with hard work. An independent survey of graduates, whose average stay is 16 months, shows that more than 90 percent have been able to return to their communities and build productive lives, Ken Ortman says.
The boys don’t come voluntarily. Most are referred by probation departments, others by parents or grandparents. They’ve all been in trouble with the law, abused drugs or alcohol, failed in school or acted in other self-destructive ways.
Because the Ortmans require Bible study and daily devotions, the ranch receives no public funds. Operating costs, which average $2,000 a month per boy, are covered by private donations. The Ortmans, however, would like to help more than the 16 boys they are currently state-licensed to accept. And thanks to nearly $16,000 raised for the ranch by the Rotary Club of Branson-Hollister, Missouri, they’ll soon have room for a few more. The club’s 75 members chose the LUC Boys Ranch as the beneficiary of their fifth annual ‘Taste of The Ozarks’ gala held each spring. At Branson’s posh Radisson Hotel, chefs from 20 local restaurants provided a gourmet meal of their best dishes—from prime rib to luscious desserts. The evening featured an auction of donated items, including a $1,700 diamond ring. Tickets sold for $25.
Rotarian Edd Akers proposed the Boys Ranch as the beneficiary. Secretary of R.I. District 6080 (Missouri), Edd also serves on the board of the Boys Ranch. “The Boys Ranch has been, from a dedication standpoint of the people involved, an awesome experience,” Edd says. “The work they do to see that boys have a chance—and their commitment and faith—is unbelievable. They don’t give up on kids, and that’s something everyone likes to know, that someone out there won’t give up on you.”
Each year, Rotarians are asked to suggest “charities close to their hearts,” explains 1999-2000 Club President Sandy Brims. “It’s a way to support our mission to act on behalf of our community with consistency, credibility and continuity.” The club, established in 1941, touches many facets of the community, from providing scholarships to organizing an essay program for fifth-graders on the topic of The 4-Way Test, the club’s most recent project.
The money donated by the Branson-Hollister club came to the Ortmans just in time to continue construction of a new academic building. The boys attend public school in nearby Blue Eye, Missouri, but they’re educated at the ranch, too. Replacing the scattered buildings now used, the academic center will house a central dining room, kitchen, gym, computer center, music room and counseling area. When the center is completed, it will also free up several dorm rooms now used as temporary classrooms, allowing the Ortmans to bring five more boys to the ranch.
“We were at a point where we needed something to move the project along, and the donation made it possible,” Ken says. The Ortmans receive about 1,000 calls for help every year. The ranch also attracts inquiries through its Web site http://web.archive.org/web/20040228230240/http://www.lucboys.org/. “It kind of hurts to know that for 980 of those, their future is not really bright,” Ken says.
The future is likely to be positive for 15-year-old Rob Zell, of Morton, Illinois, U.S.A., who has lived at the ranch nearly a year. The budding musician says he’s eager to get home to the drum set he left behind. When he’s not in school or working, Zell reads, plays his trumpet or spends time with two counselors “who have become kind of like second parents to me,” he says. He’s also become a whiz at repairing electronic gear, including TVs and stereos.
Fourteen-year-old Aaron Lyman, of Springfield, Missouri, also has been at the ranch about a year. One of his jobs is repairing the riding lawn mowers. “I didn’t know anything about this before,” Lyman says. “Now I’ve worked on a lot of engines, and I’ll be able to fix my own stuff.”
Work is the basis of “life reconstruction,” Ken explains. “Habits are changed by consequences. Our job is to make them accountable, to be there every time they make a choice and give a reward or a consequence,” he says. Take the consequence for skipping school or misbehaving in class, for example: “One day of staying back and digging post holes usually gives them a little better perspective on why they should listen to their teachers,” Ken says with a smile.
The boys also care for the farm’s livestock, bale hay and tend gardens. Some of them also work for the more than 100 participating local employers. They perform community service work as well. Once a year, for example, the boys renovate bicycles and distribute them to needy families. “It’s another opportunity for our guys to get involved and give of themselves,” Ken says.
The boys are often rebellious and unhappy when they arrive. Most are from urban areas. Shane Poole, 14, had never fed a cow before he arrived a few months ago. “The only animals I’d seen were dogs and cats,” he says, ducking away from the cow trying to chew his sleeve.
The Ortmans have the final say on when a boy is ready to leave. One signal is when the boys quit begging to go home. “When that stops,” Ken says, “it tells me that they’re beginning to use this situation to grow.”
—Kathryn Buckstaff is a free-lance writer based in Hollister, Missouri, U.S.A.
THE ROTARIAN/SEPTEMBER 2000