(This story originally appeared in the July/August issue of Salt magazine.)
WILMINGTON — Some women just do not give up — ever.
After overcoming obstacles, Darlene “Dar” Hensley and Danielle Combs, crediting God, have fulfilled the first and second parts of their vision. Now, despite facing likely their most impossible hurdle, their vision has come “home.”
Hensley and Combs met in 2008 and discovered that they had the same three-part vision: helping change youth by using horses, providing an academic program and creating a “place called home.”
They talked to each other, talked to people who told them the vision was too big, and then began to “Google.” They found one home that was similar to their vision, and then they talked again — this time to the founder of Eagle Ranch in Flowery Branch, Ga.
Eddie Staub moved from Alabama to Flowery Branch, just northeast of Atlanta, in 1982. He founded Eagle Ranch with a mission: to make “life better for children and their families, positively impacting communities for the glory of God.”
Hensley and Combs attended intensive training at the ranch and learned the business model of Staub’s operation.
Then they learned one other very important tidbit from Staub, and his view has made all the difference in their vision: “Attempt something so great for God, that it’s doomed to failure unless God be in it.”
So, with prayer and God-given talent, they founded Stepping Stones Ranch in 2010.
Hensley had worked for years as a camp outdoor educator and children’s minister. She had seen homeless children in Africa.
Combs had worked at Camp Kern and witnessed sad foster home situations and abused siblings who needed a place to stay for a week.
Between the two of them, they had seen enough heartbreak, and they knew they were on the right path to help struggling youth. They trained and became certified under Equine Assisted Growth and Learning.
Combs already had two horses, 29-year-old Nikki and her daughter, 8-year-old Sassy. Generous donors allowed them to purchase their first donkey and two miniature horses.
They spent time talking to people in youth agencies and the Clinton County juvenile court system. Now connected, they receive referrals from three counties’ juvenile systems.
In order to find out even more about their vision, they visited Wears Valley Ranch in Pigeon Forge, Tenn. There they found a Christian children’s home and boarding school that promotes “spiritual, emotional, intellectual, social and physical development of children.”
They began to help struggling students at Stepping Stones Ranch on Gum Grove Road. One part of the vision was complete. For four-and-a-half years, they helped students by using equine therapy.
Students were paired with horses in a unique way: a “meet and greet” with horses in a field. The horse basically goes to and chooses the student whose personality mirrors the horse.
As Dar says, “Horses don’t choose the wrong people. They know more than we do.”
They have even witnessed a donkey placing his head on the chest of a struggling student.
Rhythmic riding is part of the equine therapy. Based on Bruce Perry’s theories, riding bareback reconnects triggers in the brain. Music is also used during a session.
Perry is a psychologist who was an expert witness for the Columbine High School shootings, the Oklahoma City bombing, and the Waco siege.
Rhythmic riding is based on the principle that “patterned, repetitive … activity elicits a sensation of safety.” Dar, Danielle and Katie Myers Purkey are present during the sessions.
Katie came to Stepping Stones in another “God moment” when Dar and Danielle were at Clinton-Massie schools, asking about counseling for the girls at the ranch. Katie had been hired as an intern after graduating from Wilmington College. She was looking for permanent work.
“At that time, I was looking for some meaningful career,” Katie admits. She is now a licensed social worker.
She has found her career, but not without some hesitation at first. Her first encounter with a horse was nerve-wracking, to say the least. She had always been allergic to horses, even breaking out in a huge red rash. This day she got onto the horse and was truly not breathing because of nerves. Once she followed Danielle’s directions and began to breathe, she discovered that she was having no allergic reaction to the horse.
Another part of the vision is becoming clear on State Route 380 near Wilmington.
In August 2013, Dar and Dan found that Linda Pape’s 45-acre Stonewall Farm was for sale. They visited the farm with Jeff Honnerlaw, who allowed them to sign a contract and take up to 60 days to raise the funds needed.
“They prayed over the contract in agreement for God to raise up a donor or investor if this was His will for Stepping Stones Ranch.”
Danielle believes God was in that meeting.
“Here we were, signing a contract on a house that we definitely could not afford,” she said. Such a monumental step had to be on Facebook — right? Later that evening, Danielle’s friend started texting her. By the end of the evening, friends had “felt nudged by God to purchase the property for the use of Stepping Stones Ranch.”
With work and perseverance, the home for girls will open Aug. 1. It has been supported by many people and organizations in the community. Dar is the minister at Spring Valley United Methodist, and she says, “The congregation has come through with prayer, money and support. I am touched by their desire to help.”
SSR is a non-secure, non-custodial home. This means that girls are “placed at the ranch to empower and equip them to turn their lives around for reunification. And, hopefully, like Wears Valley Ranch, no one will want to leave such an incredible opportunity.”
In more than 25 years, Wears Valley has not had one runaway.
Clinton County Probate and Juvenile Court Judge Chad Carey is an avid supporter of Stepping Stones Ranch.
“I think the home is wonderful,” Carey said. “Clinton County really needs this place for struggling youth.”
When the home opens, the academic part of the vision will be in place for the new school year. Greater Ohio Virtual School is fully accredited for grades seven through 12, and credits transfer to all Ohio schools. The school is tuition-free. Helping the girls with life and school are houseparents Shea and Jacque Proctor, who are moving “back home.” They were teachers in Warsaw, Ind., and will be most valuable in the education of the girls.
A typical day for the girls might start at 7 a.m. with household chores and caring for horses. Then, the school lessons begin — some traditionally academic and some appealingly experiential. A math lesson may actually end up in the kitchen, creating a recipe for dinner!
So, with the perfect house, much work has been done, and much is left to do. The three women are physically doing the painting and yard work. Last year they even boarded long-horned cattle that naturally “mowed the grass to an acceptable length.”
Danielle’s husband, Ken, has been instrumental in much of the maintenance and care of the ranch. And, at center stage, the home already has a huge table in the dining room, waiting for the first family meal. At least a dozen people can eat together around it.
Windows across the back of the house look out onto a patio and pond. Dar hopes girls will invite their families to fish in the pond. Cats, dogs and horses complete the family atmosphere.
With their vision becoming clearer each day, Dar, Danielle and Katie feel very blessed, but also have lots of plans for the future. Just picking up shavings, food and equipment becomes a struggle without a farm truck. They are hoping and praying for that old truck, and they are also hoping for some wish list items, such as yard and maintenance tools, a sewing machine, gravel and fencing. Plans to build an outdoor chapel are found on the list, too.
Two companies in Clinton County have already become monthly partners for the ranch, and this money helps with operational costs such as clothing and transportation.
The community can help by purchasing one or more gifts from the registry at Target. When shopping, use the “college” registry. The first name is “Stepping Stones,” and the last name is “Ranch.” Also, on Aug. 15, an event is planned at the Elks Lodge in Wilmington. Guest can enjoy corn hole, silent auctions, golf and lunch.
Dar, Danielle and Katie hope the girls will “age out” of their home and actually find apartments in the Clinton County area.
“We hope that we can somehow create scholarships for college and help the girls after high school — in real life.”
With the extreme vision, the solidarity of three women, and God being “in it,” girls at Stepping Stones Ranch will be changed. The other day Katie was showing off a silver ring. Then she pointed to Dar’s hand, then Danielle’s. They wear the same silver ring. “Yes,” she said. “I bought these for us to wear.” Enough said.