Place of hope and healing: Horse ranch mentors troubled kids
ROCHESTER, Pa. (AP) — Cassidy stands in a back corner of her stall munching hay.
Pint-sized Za’Riya Harris, 5, of Beaver Falls, can barely see her.
?’Scuse me,” she politely, but shyly says. ”’Scuse me,” she repeats, more emphatically this time.
The big mare with brown and white patches lumbers over. Expecting a treat, she thrusts her massive head toward the little girl. Startled, Za’Riya recoils.
But this is no place to be afraid. On the contrary, it’s a place of hope and healing, not only for kids — many facing conflicts and challenges — who come to be mentored, but for horses, too, many of which have been rescued from neglect and abuse.
Some children “feel like there’s no hope,” Micheline said, “and so that’s why we have this ranch — to give them hope, let them know that there is change, there’s opportunity for a better life and it’s within them.”
Plaques — some aphorisms, some Scriptural — bolster their mission.
For example: “Never be defined by your past. It was a lesson, not a life sentence.” Or this from Proverbs: “Seek his will in all you do and he will direct your path.”
RYYR is a peaceful, restorative spot — 50 acres off Wises Grove Road with a 17-stall bank barn more than 100 years old made of hand-cut sandstone and hewn posts, tack room, hay loft, indoor arena, pastures and huge pond stocked with largemouth bass, sunfish and bluegill.
Some horses are boarders (which help offset costs), some are donated, but many are rescues like Romeo and Juliet. Romeo, a quarter horse, and Juliet, a Morgan mare, both malnourished and emaciated from neglect by a previous owner, ate tree bark to stay alive, Micheline said. Today, fully healthy, they are favored among young riders.
The Barkleys rescued Tyler, a Dutch warmblood gelding stabled 10 hours away, three days before he was to be euthanized because his owner could no longer afford boarding costs.
Pansie, an imposing Belgian draft horse, was a rescued foal from a mare stalled 24/7 and kept perpetually pregnant, Micheline said, to collect her estrogen-rich urine to make Premarin, a man-made replacement hormone for menopausal women.
Horses are big animals averaging 1,000 pounds and standing 5 to 6 feet at the withers — the highest part of the back at the base of the neck.
“They’re like big dogs is what I tell the kids,” Micheline said. “They don’t care what you look like and they can’t lie.”
They’re curious and empathetic herd animals with an incredible power to heal. They’ve long been used therapeutically to help treat people with physical, emotional and behavioral disorders.
Most kids love animals, Micheline said, but “we get kids who are petrified. They turn white and plaster up against a wall.”
Until they meet Pansie, RYYR’s biggest horse weighing close to a ton with feet the size of dinner plates. Incredibly powerful, Amish use this breed to plow fields.
Whatever life throws at you, stand in front of Pansie and “everything just fades away,” Micheline said of this gentle giant.
“To me, it’s incredible how God made horses in such a way that there’s something about a horse that’s calming and helps kids learn how to communicate,” said Becca Shaw, RYYR trainer and program coordinator. She’s certified as a Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International registered instructor and also a substitute special education teacher.
“They have to be paying attention to the horse. You can’t force a horse to do anything. They learn an incredible amount by these large creatures that are willing to work with us,” she said.
Within weeks, Becca’s seen kids going from petrified to wanting to “ride the biggest horse in the barn by the end of summer. It’s incredible to see their confidence and then be able to use horses to speak to them about the hope we’ve given the horses as rescued and the hope we have in Jesus.”
‘A sense of calmness’
It’s just past 12:30 p.m. when a multi-passenger van pulls up a long driveway leading to the RYYR barn.
City kids ages 5 to 8 from Hayes Summer Camp run by TRAILS Ministries in Beaver Falls — some who’ve never been on a horse ranch — are on a field trip; a chance to explore different resources Beaver County offers, said Kolbe Cole, camp director.
For the past three years, TRAILS has been taking campers to RYYR for enrichment.
“They love it,” Kolbe said. “I think it’s an amazing program,” where children learn trust, responsibility for another being and gain strength and confidence.
After lunch and a Bible lesson, 19 children split into small groups that rotate through activities.
“We’re not an organization that throws a saddle on a horse and puts a kid on,” Micheline said. “They have to learn everything — how to handle a horse, discipline bad behavior, how to properly groom a horse, pick feet and saddle it to make sure it fits right. It’s so empowering for them to have all this information.”
Children who come to RYYR in its one-to-one mentoring program visit two to three times before they ride. They’re given a chore to teach the importance of serving others and making a difference. Older children clean stalls and fill feed buckets; younger kids groom horses with curry combs and dandy brushes.
They engage in horse management — the proper way to act around and lead a horse.
Day-campers, who also get to experience some of what mentored kids do, shared what they learned.
“You can’t run behind the horse or he might kick you,” said Alawne Jefferson, 7, of Beaver Falls.
“You can’t be loud whenever you’re riding a horse or he might flip you over,” said Terrell Leigh, 9, also of Beaver Falls.
Micheline leads Tyler, a stout horse built like a tank but very compliant, to a group of boys.
“If anyone’s brave enough, you can walk Tyler,” she said. “I’ll show you how to do it.”
She takes Tyler’s lead rope, similar to a leash, but cautions never to wrap it around a hand.
“If it (horse) runs off, what happens?” she asks. “You get dragged, exactly, or rope burn or you might break a finger.”
Standing beside Tyler’s shoulder, eyes ahead, she clucks her tongue and in tandem they move forward. To get him to stop, she tells young charges to plant feet firmly, hold head still and say ”‘whoa.’ You gotta be in charge of him. You gotta be the boss of him. You don’t have to be mean, but you have to be assertive.”
In no time, kids lead these gentle creatures over boardwalks, around barrels and zigzag through bend poles as if it’s second nature.
Of course, the best part is riding. After donning protective helmets, riders ease into saddles, grab hold of pommels and RYYR mentors escort them around the indoor arena.
“I like when the horses go fast,” said Javien Pitts, 7, of Beaver Falls.
“I like riding the pony and I like the colors,” said 5-year-old Kyenn Williams of New Brighton, referring to dipping hands into tempera paint to make prints on a horse’s flank and shoulders.
Peggy Evans, site coordinator for Hayes Summer Camp, watched in awe.
“This horse ranch is amazing,” she said. “It just brings a sense of calmness to everybody ... I just got emotional. I cried a bit because I’ve just seen them in such awe. They just turn completely down. They were just so relaxed ... They knew they couldn’t come in here and scream and yell. They all just became very loving and it touched my soul. I’m amazed. I’m happy.”
‘Lifting them up’
Not every child, of course, comes to RYYR willingly. Some are here for mentoring; some referred by the juvenile court system.
In 2017, 55 youth ages 6 to 18 were in the mentoring program; 18 came through Beaver County Juvenile Services; 248 attended day camp, Micheline said.
“A lot of these kids are hard, really hard,” she said, “based on the way they were raised and treated.”
Many come from broken and abusive homes where parents are alcoholics, drug addicts or incarcerated, she said. Forty percent, she estimated, are being raised by grandparents.
A lot come with labels — ODD (oppositional defiant disorder) and ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder). Depression, anxiety and panic attacks consume many, she said.
“We’re all about encouraging and lifting them up ... When they come here, they’re loved unconditionally. I don’t care what you look like; I don’t care how you’re dressed. I’m only going to look and see the good in you ’cause that’s the way Christ is.”
She remembered the first girl she mentored, a girl whose father abandoned her; a drug-addicted mother who also walked away. A grandparent adopted her, but died soon after, leaving a maternal aunt, living below the poverty line, to step in.
Kids at school bullied the girl. Told her she smelled bad; teased her on the way she dressed, which “brought about cutting and attempted suicide,” said Micheline, and placement in a facility for three years.
When she came to RYYR, she had never ridden a draft horse, but fell in love with Pansie.
Micheline walked Pansie, with the girl astride, around the arena a few times.
“She was just elated.”
Micheline removed Pansie’s saddle and halter expecting the horse to “book it” out an open gate to the pasture to graze with other horses.
But as the girl walked to an opposite exit, Pansie followed.
“Wait,” Micheline said, intrigued. She told the girl to walk in a zigzag pattern. Pansie again followed.
Given a choice to be with the other horses, Micheline told the girl Pansie chose to be with her.
“It was the first time she felt wanted and love in her life,” Micheline said.
The girl spent the summer at RYYR. She graduated from high school, is going to college and is going to marry, Micheline said.
“It’s pretty amazing how God shows up every day.”
Results are noticeable
Beaver County Juvenile Justice, an agency of the county’s Court of Common Pleas, oversees both delinquency and dependency cases and provides probation supervision. Dependency describes youth who may be abused, neglected, truant or status offenders. Delinquency involves a criminal act.
The goal is balanced and restorative justice to protect the community, accountability for offenses committed and competency development to enable youth to become responsible and productive.
Payment of financial restitution to victims is expected, but so is community service for those over 14, especially if a family can’t afford the fine.
Juvenile justice clients have been involved with RYYR since late 2016.
“It’s phenomenal,” said Debbie Landsbaugh, community liaison officer. “There’s something calming out here. It’s reaching them on a different level that’s so much more impactful. They’re working with each other, working with adults and learning things they never learned and doing it on their own. They want to do it.”
She described what she saw when she first went to inspect the ranch.
Kids were working with “smiles on their faces, not minding the chores they were doing.”
She recognized a client who had completed her community service obligation and returned of her own volition to volunteer at RYYR.
Kids, she said, seem more comfortable discussing problems here than in an office setting. Some have difficulty communicating with a therapist, Landsbaugh said, “but out here you see them talk to a horse,” releasing some of the hurt and frustration.
They spend 90 minutes working with horses in Micheline’s one-on-one mentoring, then in the afternoon work with juvenile court staff on team-building activities, anger management, problem solving and competency development.
A few years ago, the state juvenile justice system introduced an enhancement strategy initiative to “refocus on what our goals are as probation officers,” said Charles Rossi, supervisor for the county’s juvenile justice system. “A big role is trying to build rapport with a client and trying to identify the root of what’s causing clients to have issues ... We’re seeing this ranch as being a huge part of this initiative.”
Results are noticeable.
“The recidivism rate is down,” Debbie said. Last year, only three juveniles were repeat offenders.
“That’s pretty good statistically,” she said. “The kids absolutely love it.”
By day’s end, many are reluctant to leave. And the program helps strengthen or rebuild relationships with parents, she said.
“There’s definitely a ripple effect,” Rossi said.
“There’s no negative way to look at this place,” Landsbaugh said.
Power of hope
No one knows the power of hope and redemption better than Micheline. Whatever brokenness children bring to RYYR, she’s experienced it and likely more, which is why she connects so well.
On first arrival, some give her a defiant look: “Oh, yeah, what do you know about it,” she said. “Well, you know what? I’ve been there done that, buddy. But I’m telling you there’s hope. You can change your life, but you have to change the way you think.”
Micheline was born in Vietnam in 1969 to a Vietnamese mother and an American GI. Her mother, previously married to a Vietnamese man, had three children with him and three “mixed kids.” Micheline is the youngest.
Her parents’ relationship was violent, she said, fueled by alcohol and emotional problems that often erupted in arguments.
Much of it, fortunately, she doesn’t remember. Her father abandoned the family when Micheline was 2. But her only sister, 9 years older, does remember. She told stories of their drunken father grabbing Micheline and throwing her across the room. The time he got angry with their mother, beat her and shot at her as she ran upstairs, walls riddled with bullets.
“There was just a lot of violence,” Micheline said.
After her father left, “we became very destitute,” Micheline said. “My mom became very depressed, severely depressed. The thing that really got her the most was that he was never coming back and she just wallowed in that. She really couldn’t take care of us. There wasn’t money.”
Most mothering and household duties fell on her sister, not yet a teenager.
The children were so hungry their mother “prostituted herself to feed us,” Micheline said. Eventually, things got so bad she took her six kids to an American orphanage in Vietnam begging to get all six adopted with one family in the United States. Told that was unlikely, she gave up on the idea.
“As God would have it, we stayed together,” Micheline said.
A series of events, due to benevolence and compassion of strangers, brought them to America three days before the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975. Micheline was 6.
If not for that saving grace, she feared what her life in Vietnam might have been.
Children of mixed race were bullied and shunned. Called “children of the dust,” she said, “they were lower than dirt” and often sent to re-education camps or to work on rural farms.
The American Red Cross tracked down Micheline’s father, who returned to the United States, but neither he, his father nor sister were willing to take responsibility for the six kids and their mother.
“A church that didn’t even know us did,” she said.
The National Evangelical Free Church in Annandale, Virginia, sponsored the family, which first took residence in the pastor’s two-bedroom home; later in a home nearby purchased for them by a church member.
“We came with pretty much nothing,” Micheline said. “The church raised us and took care of us. They helped my mom get a car and a job, enrolled us in school, got us vaccinations.”
If you’re born abroad to one parent who’s a U.S. citizen, you are considered a U.S. citizen. But Micheline felt ostracized as many considered her a foreigner when she came here.
Her mother did the best she could to provide, but the family had to apply for government assistance.
“I experienced a lot of shame with being poor. I didn’t have stuff the other kids did,” she said, and that led to rebelliousness and bad choices.
“I started drinking, the drugs, promiscuity. I was wild and just angry at God,” she said.
One night when she was 17, she and her mother, who had been drinking and self-medicating to combat how miserable she felt, got into an argument.
“She tried to kill me,” Micheline said. “She grabbed the nearest thing she could and chased me with a knife. I thought for sure I was going to die that night, but God used my brother and my boyfriend. They saved me.”
About four years later, Micheline’s mother called to apologize. A few weeks later, at age 52, she committed suicide. “She took an overdose, I think, because she felt she had no value,” Micheline said.
“It was so much easier to forgive my mother than the person who sexually abused me as a child,” she said.
Though not easy to discuss, Micheline was molested from age 6 until 13. She did not name the perpetrator.
“It took me a long time (to forgive). Somebody said to me one time that hanging on to that hate and anger is like drinking the poison but waiting for the other person to die. It was poisoning me. That’s the other thing. So many girls, even the boys, that come in here that have been sexually abused, I’m here to tell when you become a believer, you’re a new creature in Christ completely remade. That’s your choice.”
Micheline knows what it’s like to be abandoned by a father; to live with a mother battling mental illness; to know poverty; to lose a loved one to suicide; to suffer abuse.
The bottom line: “I feel God allowed all that so that I could help these kids,” she said.
Equally amazing: “I consider it all a gift and honestly, I would not change anything.”
There have been many turning points in Micheline’s life, but among the biggest was meeting Matthew Barkley. She was 22; he, a year and a half older.
Until then, she described her life as a “train wreck — one bad decision after another,” including an abusive first marriage. She worked two jobs: by day an insurance agent; at night waiting tables in Arlington, Virginia.
Matthew, working at the Pentagon as a noncommissioned Army officer, stopped with friends at the restaurant for dinner. Over small talk, Micheline learned they lived in the same apartment building and became friends.
“I saw something in him that was different,” she said. It wasn’t love at first sight, but she knew he was unlike any man she’d met before.
Previous men she dated “beat me, abused me, that’s what I was used to — one failed relationship after another.”
Matthew, however, was caring and kind.
“He cared for me more than himself,” she said. “He never uttered a foul word to me; never was unkind to me.”
Matthew was raised in a Christian home and taught “this is how you treat a human being; how you treat a woman; how you love other people. That was the beginning of the change in my life. All the drama stopped,” she said.
In 1992, less than a year later, they married and moved to Pennsylvania. Matthew grew up in Portersville on a 10-acre horse farm. He was returning home to work in his family’s bookbindery. Micheline started selling real estate.
In 2005, they built a home on roughly 20 acres of forested land off Big Knob Road in New Sewickley where they raised four children and fostered more. Still, they felt called to do more and wanted to start a ranch to mentor troubled children.
Their template was Crystal Peaks Youth Ranch in Bend, Oregon, founded in 1995 by a couple that also uses rescued horses to connect with children struggling with life issues — divorce, bullying, abuse, loss of a parent.
The Barkleys attended an information clinic in 2010 and soon thereafter incorporated as RYYR. But it would take five years before their dream was realized. They battled neighbors and township over development plans, water-runoff, permits and other issues to the point Micheline was ready to give up. And that’s when things started to change.
One spring day, Matthew took their two sons to drive golf balls at Stop N’ Sock on Route 65. Afterward, curiosity spurred Matthew to drive out Wises Grove Road, one he’d never traveled.
There he saw a sign advertising a 50-acre horse farm — including barn and duplexes — for sale. After about six months of negotiating, they rented the place and eventually bought it.
Summer 2015 was RYYR’s pilot year with 12 children.
“This is the first time I really, really have joy in what I do,” Micheline said.
“When these kids come and leave and they’re smiling and so full of joy and hope, that’s the little tidbits that God gives me to keep me going.”
Information from: Beaver County Times, http://www.timesonline.com/