Jul 23, 2013 At Soaring Wings, women offer love, support to children
by Sonja J. Keith
A special group of women are lending a hand with their time and talents to help the children who call Soaring Wings Ranch Home their home.
Jenifer Kendrick was serving as an attorney ad litem in juvenile court in Faulkner County, representing children who sometimes needed placement in foster care or another facility, when she heard about the efforts to establish a children’s ranch.
“I could never find a place for the older kids,” she said, adding that it was difficult to keep siblings together. “They want to stay together.”
Jenifer has been on the ranch board since it was created about 12 years ago. “I remember we had $500 in the bank and we did not own a blade of grass,” she said of the early days on the board.
Jenifer recalls “hearing and loving the dreams” for the ranch in those early days and is grateful for what has been accomplished — especially that the organization is operating debt-free.
“God just works it out. It feels like I’ve been sitting on the front row, watching a miracle. I have no doubt it will keep growing.”
After the ranch seemed to be on its feet with two homes in place, Jenifer thought it was time for another group, the Ranch Hands, which was started about five years ago. “I had been thinking about it for years and years.”
Email correspondence went out to see if anyone was interested in joining and those who responded met four or five times over a summer to lay the foundation for the group. “It has been a complete blessing to watch it grow,” Jenifer said.
Each member pays $60 in yearly dues. There is a 15-member leadership team that meets monthly, but for the 150-plus members there are no regular meetings and no specific membership requirements. Members lend a hand where they can – some with financial support, others with time spent with the kids, or both. Members also pray for the children and staff.
“What I love about our mission and purpose is that women can choose to serve on lots of different levels,” said immediate past president Kirsten Kravitz. “Lots of ladies choose to be present when we have events for the Soaring Wings kids (i.e. fall festival, movie outings, stuffing Christmas stockings). Then we have another host of Ranch Hands who are more ‘behind the scenes’ worker bees. They might shop for stocking items, anonymously buy a birthday gift for a child at the Ranch or drop off cupcakes for us to have at fall festival. And then we have our members who choose to pay their dues and pray for this ministry without any other commitment throughout the year.”
Among the group’s regular activities, Ranch Hands provide a personalized welcome basket complete with a Bible for children who come to Soaring Wings, even if it’s just a short stay. “It has lots of real personalized stuff,” Jenifer said.
Jenifer also described the “extreme” Christmas stockings that Ranch Hands provide during the holidays. They also plan special activities for the children, including birthday parties and two or three summertime outings like swim parties or movie nights. “It provides respite for the house-parents and gives the kids something fun to do,” Jenifer said. “We love being with the kids.”
Jenifer said most kids have a “crazy, fun aunt” who does special things for their nieces and nephews. She said the Ranch Hands are that for the children at Soaring Wings. She said when there is a need, a ranch hand responds.
“It doesn’t hit one person real hard,” she said. “It’s never hard to get someone to pitch in.” She added that the ease in which Ranch Hands volunteer provides assurance that the group is “doing the right thing.”
“We don’t have to beg.”
“Our ‘loose’ philosophy is to be the ‘fun aunt’ for these kiddos,” Kirsten said. “That extra birthday gift, that special high school graduation reward, the unexpected shoe shopping trip . . . But I think what I’ve enjoyed most over our four-plus years of involvement is seeing how God, through the hearts of so many women, continues to meet the needs of these kids. We can put an ‘all call’ email out for a welcome basket, and within a few hours, Ranch Hands will sign up for all of the items needed to greet new kids arriving at Soaring Wings.”
Ranch Hands work closely with the house moms on projects and meeting needs. “We’re in awe of them,” Jenifer said, adding that the moms have numerous schedules to coordinate and details to work out at their home. “We give a little extra love to them.”
“With our membership dues, the Ranch Hands are able to be a monthly supporter for Soaring Wings Ranch operations,” said Kirsten. “But honestly, what we have found is that most people can’t stay away from a more hands-on approach to being a Ranch Hand once they experience the joy these kiddos have to offer.”
Each spring, the Ranch Hands host a “Gal Corral” — coordinated by Niki Thompson — to celebrate the success of the ranch and hear updates as well as recruit new members. “We are always looking for new members,” Jenifer said, adding that another member represents someone who is helping financially support the ranch with their dues and “another person praying for those kids.” It also helps create more awareness for the ranch through that new member’s circle of friends and family. She said some “amazing things” have been accomplished at the ranch through family members of Ranch Hands.
Ranch Hands aren’t limited to those living in Faulkner County, Jenifer points out, with one member from as far away as El Dorado. “Anyone is welcome.” She added that the children at the ranch come from throughout the state.
Kirsten has served the last two years as president of the organization. Jenifer credits her leadership for the group’s success. “Over the last two years, that’s when our major growth came,” Jenifer said.
“As a pediatric nurse practitioner, I worked several years evaluating children who entered foster care,” Kirsten said. “I saw firsthand what it meant for a child to be pulled from a dire situation into a very scary uncertainty of where they would go. Logically, we know and hope, they will go to a kinder and gentler environment. But to be at Soaring Wings Ranch, meet with founder, Andrew Watson, see the beautiful homes and amenities these children will be amongst and then see the children thrive in that environment firsthand, it really cemented for me that this is something I want to be a part of in some way.”
Jenifer said the work of the Ranch Hands will continue to be important, especially as Soaring Wings looks to double the number of young people served. “At the end of the summer it wouldn’t surprise me if new house-parents are hired,” Jenifer said. “I see us growing along with the ranch.”
When she considers the role that Ranch Hands have played in the lives of the children served, Jenifer can’t help but feel emotional. “It’s just overwhelming. There aren’t words. I get teary when I think about it.”
Kirsten has two special memories of her time as a Ranch Hand. “It was our first fall festival that we hosted out at Soaring Wings. We love finding ways for our own families to intermingle with the house-parents and kids at the ranch. There was a sweet 14-year-old boy who stopped at the s’mores station. He didn’t know what it was or how to assemble the parts. He had never seen a s’more. I watched him put one together, and he went to take a bite. He didn’t know the marshmallow was supposed to be toasted. I looked at my two boys who had probably eaten more than their weight in s’mores in their short lives. My oldest, who was 4 at the time, helped this big teenager make a s’more and walked with him to the campfire.
“That’s the impact I’m talking about, and not so much for the teenager, but for me and my son.”
On another occasion, Kirsten took her three children to the ranch to deliver some welcome baskets. “When we got out of the car, a little girl went running in the house and yelled ‘Mom! There’s a Ranch Hand here!’ She knew by the big bin I was carrying. We have a presence in their hearts, and hopefully an eternal impact on some small level.”
"The Ranch Hands have been instrumental in providing so many ‘extras’ for our children that really give their stay at Soaring Wings Ranch an additional warm, special touch. The huge welcome baskets they provide to each of our brand new children are so comforting, and they give the children nice things that are THEIRS! The Ranch Hands are so thoughtful in their gifts, and they really help Soaring Wings Ranch give lots of extras to the kids that we would not normally be able to provide.
“In addition to the gifts and activities they provide for the children, the Ranch Hands are also a huge encouragement to the staff. They remember the house-parents and staff on their birthdays with cards and gift cards, and notes of encouragement that really are invaluable to us. They are a huge source of encouragement to everyone at Soaring Wings Ranch, both children and staff."
– Andrew Watson
Founder and Executive Director
Soaring Wings Ranch