By Kristen Oliver
Courtesy of The Gainesville Times
View original story featured in the Gainesville Times.
Arianne Hernandez is an introverted teenager. She used to have trouble communicating with her family, and she had a tendency to isolate herself.
Thanks to Eagle Ranch, her troubles are nearly gone and her family couldn’t be more grateful for her transformation.
Hernandez, her mother Aimee Gonzalez and stepfather Jose Gonzalez tried everything to maintain peace in their home, from parenting books to home schooling. Finally, they found Eagle Ranch, a Christian children’s home in South Hall County for boys and girls in crisis.
“Things were getting really tense, always,” Hernandez said. “I was completely disconnected from my family and I made a point of isolating myself. When I did see them, we were just fighting.”
Hernandez had some academic and behavioral trouble throughout middle school. Her mother home-schooled her in ninth grade, which helped academically but didn’t ease the tension at home.
Jose Gonzalez, who’s been in his stepdaughter’s life since she was 2 years old, said Hernandez didn’t rebel the way many teenagers do, but her anger still disrupted the home.
“I don’t know that I saw a rebellion in her, but it was hard,” Jose Gonzalez said. “It was very hard to listen to her be disrespectful and challenge her mom all the time.”
The Gonzalezes decided to send their daughter back to public school for 10th grade, at which point Aimee said her daughter “immediately spiraled again.”
“I’ve always been reading up on self-help and parenting books,” Aimee said. “But I just felt stuck and hopeless, because I just didn’t know how to help her this time.”
Aimee turned to her circle of friends at church for help. One friend said she put her son in military school and it worked for their family. So the Gonzalezes decided to look for residential homes in North Georgia that could help Arianne find the right path.
“Giving up was not an option,” Jose said. “We wanted to do what was best for her.”
They found Eagle Ranch, one of the only faith-based ranches in North Georgia, and only a few miles from their own home.
Aimee said the ranch “seemed too good to be true,” but Arianne was not open to the idea at first. She had just started 10th grade and didn’t want to give up her life and her privileges.
In the end, Hernandez said she went willingly to the ranch, because she wanted to change her mood as much as her parents did.
“We didn’t want to dump her off somewhere, but we knew we needed help,” Aimee said. “We knew we needed her to have some time away from us, but we also wanted to be part of the process.”
The process at Eagle Ranch includes counseling for the child and family, residential living for the child on the ranch and a partnership with the parents throughout the child’s stay.
Hernandez, who went to the ranch on Oct. 13, 2013 and graduated this month, lived in the Blessing Home for girls with house parents John and Jordan Cunnings.
“She came just really frustrated at the world,” John Cunnings said. “From her family, she just butted heads with her mom and had a hard time knowing how to share her feelings.”
John Cunnings said it was important for Arianne to learn there were people who had the same goals she did.
Arianne said it didn’t take her long to love life on the ranch. She enjoyed being surrounded by nature and often spent time with her friends stargazing or taking pictures on the ranch’s 230 acres.
She said the most important thing she learned over the last year was effective communication tools she could take home after graduating from the ranch.
“She was on the defense all the time and felt like it was always Arianne against her mom,” Jordan Cunnings said. “During their time here, they learned they’re actually on the same team. It was just about that shift from her thinking everyone was against her to realizing, ’Oh there are actually people who really care about me, especially my mom and stepdad.’”
Through the parent counseling offered at the ranch, Aimee said she and her husband learned the problems at home were not entirely their daughter’s, and much of the solution lay with them.
“We have a choice-consequence model here at the ranch,” said Stefanie Long, director of communications at Eagle Ranch. “What we try to help parents understand is the importance of making it clear to their child that there is a consequence for a choice and following through on that.”
The Gonzalezes said they see a huge change in their daughter, one that began after about six months away from home. Arianne said she brings home a lot of ideas from the ranch, including holding family meetings and dividing up chores.
“Even just the wording she uses to express herself is so different from before,” Aimee said. “She’s more patient and she’s holding herself responsible for her part in any conflict or any actions she chooses.”
Hernandez said their family, like any family, isn’t perfect. They still get into arguments, but the difference now is they can always find a resolution.
Though Arianne graduated Dec. 16 and is living at home full-time, she and her family can still rely on help from Eagle Ranch. It offers after care counseling for the parents and child after the move home.
“You’re still working on it,” Long said. “You actually have more work to do on the back end, because you’ve got to get back to a new normal for your home.”
The purpose of the ranch, according to Long, is truly family restoration.
Arianne said she will miss the ranch and her house parents, but she’s looking forward to finishing the 11th grade and eventually going to college to become a journalist.
“It all doesn’t seem so far away anymore,” she said.