WILMINGTON — Stepping Stones Ranch recently received its first residential student, an accomplishment that marks the beginning of a new program for girls who need help.
Stepping Stones operates an equine-assisted learning program aimed at helping troubled youth. It recently added a residential program in which the girls will live on the barn’s grounds, learn life skills and even attend online classes through the Greater Ohio Virtual School.
“The kids know that we’re for them,” said Dar Hensley, who, along with Danielle Combs, founded the programs and the ranch. “When they come here, we’re doing everything we can to encourage them and inspire them and motivate them to be who we believe God calls them to be.
“A lot of times, we just find that that student needs someone to believe in them,” Hensley continued.
The residential program received a student a little more than a week ago and is looking at a prospective second student. Due to confidentiality rules at the ranch, the girls were not available for interview, nor would staff discuss them.
Katie Myers Purkey said the kind of girls they work with typically have had a rough home life.
“The environment at home could be something that’s not beneficial to them,” said Purkey. “They need a place to go to work on past issues or trauma that they may be suffering from, and we provide healing here for that.”
Hensley said the home heals girls by using daily devotionals, chapel time and a small staff “that we hope provides a family setting, so it feel like a home … natural and not institutional.”
Girls also participate in the equine program, which Hensley says brings everyone further together.
Equine-assisted learning uses horses and a licensed therapist to teach specific qualities or lessons, such as responsibility, to students, according to Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association, which accredits Stepping Stones.
“We do this together,” Hensley said. “We’re all creating an experiential, learning environment where we’re all growing together. So it’s not just focused on the student, we’re really trying to do life together as a family.”
Living and growing together, Hensley said, allows the home to address the three components that she believes are integral to the program’s mission – helping students and families redeem the past, restoring a sense of peace in students’ hearts and renewing hope for a brighter future.
The idea for Stepping Stones, for Hensley, came from a mission trip in Ghana, where she supported an orphanage.
“On my second trip home, I felt the Lord speaking to me and saying, ‘Now go back and care for the orphans in your community,’” said Hensley. “That was the big wakeup moment to me. … It’s all too easy to overlook the people in our own community.
“God was drawing on my heart to develop a ministry that really transformed lives of youth that were just falling through the cracks in our society and families felt there really was no hope,” Hensley said. “It was being able to reach the broken-hearted, the down and out, the hopeless and help them realize their lives count … and to break that generational cycle.”
Hensley said she then met Combs, who had a similar vision, and the two worked together to create Stepping Stones.
Stepping Stones’ residential program accepts girls between the ages of 6 to 18. Girls will be screened by the ranch, and only those who are a good fit for the program are accepted.
“We’re about transforming lives,” said Hensley. “We’re not about punishment. If they need more of a restrictive environment, then we’re not right for them.”
Purkey sets up a plan with goals for girls, which Hensley said includes learning responsibility, rules and independent living skills – chores, laundry, cooking and others.
The ranch is marketed within an 80-mile radius because family visits are a part of the program, but Hensley said they would consider some outside of that radius based on needs.
A girl’s stay lasts for at least 30 days and could last as long as two years.
Reach Nathan Kraatz at 937-382-2574, ext. 2510 or on Twitter @NathanKraatz.