Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Student Spotlight: Welcome Home Ranch

Snapshot of Welcome Home Ranch web page and grounds.

A horse neighs. Another whinnies. The air is ripe with the distinct smell of barn. In the distance, hooves clomp along the hay-strewn ground, accompanied by the rhythmic tapping of…computer keyboards? Yes, a typical day at Welcome Home Ranch is in full swing.

Situated on 55 acres in the shadow of Gilbert’s San Tan Mountain, Welcome Home Ranch is work, home and school for 25 young men who have faced drug and alcohol addiction.

The property is one of three addiction recovery facilities that make up the Canada-based John Volken Academy.

“The concept is a two-year program where boys overcome their addictions, receive career and educational training and gain the tools they need to be successful in life,” said Brad Barrett, Education Director for Welcome Home Ranch and former superintendent of the Gilbert School District.

“At Welcome Home Ranch, we board 150 horses, operate a feed store and sell produce,” Barrett said. “One of the biggest responsibilities the boys have is putting on weekly rodeos and other public equine events in the arena. It’s a business and every boy has a job to do to keep the business going.”

Jobs include cleaning out stalls, feeding and washing the horses, working in the feed store, cooking, cleaning and maintaining the two onsite houses where the residents live.

When they are settled in and adjusted to life on the ranch, the boys have the opportunity to enroll in classes to further their education. Enter Rio Salado College, a pioneer of online learning in Maricopa County, and one of the largest community colleges in the nation.

“You can enroll in classes at Rio Salado every Monday,” Barrett said. “That’s perfect for us because boys come in at different times during the year.”

Online classes also work well with the ranch’s structured approach to daily living. Each day has dedicated time for chores, group sessions, life skills training and education.

“I think the biggest benefit to online classes is the ability to progress at your own pace,” said ranch resident Ryan Male, 22. “You can finish a class in one week or 16. It’s completely up to you.”

Male works hand in hand with Barrett to run the education department and credits the ranch program for finally helping him turn the corner on his addiction.

“I had actually been to nine other programs prior to this one,” Male said. “I ended up using drugs while at each of them. I sat in circles and talked about how I was going to stay clean and sober. I used to come up with awesome plans, but they never translated beyond the walls of the program.”

What made this program work?

“The John Volken Academy is work-based therapy,” Male said. “It’s a real-life simulator. The two years of practice and peer accountability offered here is what sets this program apart from all the rest.”

When Male first came to Welcome Home Ranch, he expected to only stay for a couple months. Now 21 months later, he has emerged as a role model and mentor for the other students.

Each day he makes himself available for tutoring in the ranch classroom – a small nondescript room tucked away in one of the horse barns.

“It feels great to pass a class with an A, but it also feels great when one of the guys I'm working with does the same,” Male said. “The program has given me the opportunity to watch dozens of students find their direction in life, and allowed me to lend a helping hand. It’s very rewarding.” 

Male has 40 college credits under his belt, maintains a 3.90 grade point average, and is a member of Rio Salado College’s Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society.

“I don’t know if there is anything more satisfying than feeling like you’re on the right path,” Male said. “It’s funny to think that it’s all led through a horse barn!” 

As if on cue, barn manager and ranch resident Alex Bingham, 23, pauses in the corridor outside the classroom while returning a horse called Felicia to her stall.

Felicia peers through an open window and gazes in at the students as if to say, “You know this is a barn, right?”

Bingham laughs.

“Horses keep you honest,” he said. “Animals can read people. That’s why I feel at home in the barn.”

For Bingham, Welcome Home Ranch has been an addiction recovery program and a pathway to the next chapter in his life. Clearly finding his true passion – horses -- Bingham has a farrier job lined up after he completes the program, and hopes to one day own an equine facility.

Male will graduate from the John Volken Academy in August, and will transfer to Arizona State University in the fall, with plans to pursue a degree in engineering.

“I’m pretty interested in biological and genetic engineering,” Male said. “I find it fascinating that the most complex and efficient material on the planet is biological and that it all stems from the genetic code of a single cell.”

Those comments show just how much of a transformation Male has undergone.

“I came to the ranch with half a commitment, zero direction, and a desire to live in my own drug-induced reality,” Male said. “Now I’m a man of commitment. I have direction and purpose in life, and a huge desire to live in everyone else's reality for once. This opportunity has been the spark that lit the engine that will fuel me for the rest of my life.”

This story can also be found in the March 21, 2015 edition of the Tempe Republic. By Mira Radovich, Communications Coordinator at Rio Salado College. 

Photos by Rio Salado Designer Bayi Smith.
Photo 1 – Barn manager and Rio Salado student Alex Bingham tends horses 
Photo 2 –
Rio Salado student Ryan Male supervises a classroom session
Photo 3 –
Rio Salado student Cameron Lewis in the horse barn classroom 
Photo 4 – Rio Salado student Alex Bingham pets a horse called Luna 

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