Kelly mopping in preparation for closing

Friday was the last day of our last week of Ranch Camp for summer 2012.  I walked into the Pavilion and our Ranchers were all decked out in their Ranch Camp staff t-shirts.
Some were sweeping, some were cleaning and stocking bathrooms, some were mopping.  Chris was hooking up the electronic components for the microphones, speakers, and camp DVD show.

Others were setting up chairs in Fultz Hall where the parents and caregivers picking up the campers would sit.

And all were working alone, competently, with a sense of real purpose.  Then it struck me just how many of our Ranchers had been campers 18 years ago at our very first Ranch Camp ever!

Kelly first, of course, who was ten when we began, and too young for camp, but what else was I going to do with her?

Then Terry, who'd been in our small day program for a few years already.  And Michael, Chris, Rebekah, Kristen, and Jay.  Over the years they were joined by Mark, Kyle, Mike, Matt, Andrew, Clyde, Julia, Valerie, Kara, Karri, and Nick.

Karri loves to mop and is very good at it, too

Ranch Camp is where they first fell in love with Down Home Ranch.  Still, I was amazed to realize that the majority of our Ranchers got their start as campers.

This was the first year we'd decided to actually use Ranchers as regular staff at camp.  Many had gotten a bit tired of the annual invasion of their facilities, the disruptions in schedules, the locking down of many activities until “after camp.”  That's one reason we decided this year to keep the season short (four weeks instead of six or eight) and limit the number of campers at each session (40 instead of 60).

But we also figured that Ranchers might welcome the chance to demonstrate in a dramatic way how they'd advanced in maturity, capabilities, and knowledge since they were campers by becoming camp staff.

Alan and Clyde set up chairs

And did they ever!  They competed for open positions, attended all trainings, and did a superb job in every case. 

Robert was so proud relating how Julia worked patiently with campers, helping them with their crafts, and how Andrew spent hours each morning at the fishing dock, helping campers bait their hooks and remove the hook from the fish they caught.

Christopher sets up the system for our media show

Tom came in every night after dinner to sweep and mop the kitchen floor.

Folks, this has been a very important experiment, because it demonstrates that we are on the cusp of achieving a very important milestone in the continuing creation of Down Home Ranch as a working ranch.

Robert, who is a certified vocational counselor and job coach, will soon begin blocking out the path to competitive employment on the Ranch.

Heretofore, Ranchers have worked under sheltered workshop guidelines, but it's always been our policy to utilize them in real work situations.  Many people with intellectual disabilities spend virtually their entire adult lives in “vocational training.”  The question becomes, “Training for what?”

That's because there's seldom real work that really needs doing awaiting them at the other end of that training.  But believe me, we have that work, what with our InnKeepers Program, Ranch crafts and industries, animal husbandry, horticulture, and Ranch Community gardens.

We plan to follow the Bluebell Ice Cream model–eat all we can and sell the rest: organic, grass-fed beef and pork; eggs from free-range chickens (amazing what those birds can create out of grasshoppers!); baked goods from the kitchens; fresh veggies from the gardens, peaches and pears from the orchard, mustang grapes from the pecan bottoms, pecans from the grafted native trees; berries and jelly from the berry patch.

And the non-edibles: spring hanging baskets; poinsettias for Christmas and Easter lilies in the spring; woodcraft projects from the woodshop; and soon, we hope, beautifully crafted pottery items.

Our new gift shop is almost open, tucked inside a large greenhouse that will display plants for sale and our first experiment in aquaculture–the growing of plants and vegetables using an integrated system consisting of a fish tank and growing media.

Our “Transition to Competitive Employment” will require careful planning, assiduous follow-through, and the investment of considerable resources, but we've seen what can be done and we're ready to take on the challenges.

We tell the Ranchers all the time, “This is your Ranch.” 

It's an honor to be with them on their journey to making that statement ever more real and true.