By Brandie A. Thomas, Gainesville Times
In 1982, it would be tough to call Eddie Staub’s idea a plan — a work in progress would be a better description.
Today, that work in progress is Eagle Ranch, a full-blown success story.
“I’m not originally from here; I’m from a place just outside of Birmingham,” said Staub, Eagle Ranch founder and executive director. “I really didn’t want to leave Alabama. That was my home state, that’s where I grew up and that’s where I wanted to stay.”
As a student at Auburn University, Staub became involved with the Big Brothers program and got the idea for what would become his life’s work.
SCOTT ROGERS/The Times
Several students at Eagle Ranch toss a football around the yard behind the school Tuesday afternoon.
“I grew up in a real stable and secure home, and I thought that everybody had what I had as a child,” he said. “I came to realize (while working with Big Brothers) that not only was my life not the rule, it was the exception. The only reason why I had what I had was because of the grace of God.
“It was out of the gratitude for what God did for me that I wanted to give my life to helping children who didn’t have (the stable home) I had growing up.”
Initially, Staub searched around Alabama for a place to build a children’s home, but after discovering a lack of need, he realized he’d have to take his quest a little farther.
“Somehow, I found out that there wasn’t anything for hurting children northeast of Atlanta. To this day, I don’t know how I found out, but somehow Northeast Georgia got on my radar,” Staub said.
“I pinpointed that north of Atlanta would put the home right in the middle of where there wasn’t anything for children. And in July 1982, I packed up my car and came here.”
“Here” is a secluded area in Chestnut Mountain.
After months of knocking on doors and making connections in his new home, Staub signed a contract for 180 acres of land and work began on the ranch in 1983.
By 1985, the first home — Faith Home — was completed, and on April 13, the first child arrived.
Slowly, but surely, over the next 25 years the ranch’s campus would expand to include eight homes — six for boys and two for girls. Each home — Faith, Love, Hope, Peace, Glory, Praise,
Blessing and Mercy — was given a biblically-inspired name to reflect the ranch’s mission to provide children with a Christ-centered family life.
Each home is headed by a couple who serve as house parents for the children in their household.
While most students stay at the ranch for about two years, the ultimate goal is to reunite the youths with their families. To accomplish that task, ranch staff set out to help heal each student from the inside out.
That healing process starts during the admissions process with an assessment that involves the potential student and their legal guardians.
“There are such things as generational curses and generational blessings in all our families,” Staub said. “What we wanted to do (with the assessment) is to identify those sort of generational curses that have been filtering down through the generations. This helps to identify what needs to be worked on.”
Having full family involvement is one of the requirements of a student being admitted into the Eagle Ranch family. To be considered for admission, a student’s legal guardian must submit a completed application and also agree to be a part of family counseling sessions with their child.
Because ranchers are between the ages of 8 and 16, Eagle Ranch staff also focus on helping the students better their academic well-being.
Initially, all of the ranch’s students attended public schools, but in 2001 the Eagle Ranch School was opened for students in sixth through ninth grades. Those levels were selected because ranch staff felt that was the area where they could make the most impact in improving a student’s academic standing and future.
“When most of the kids come to us, they are usually one or two grade levels behind — some are even farther behind. We try and meet them at their point of academic need and take them as far as they are willing to go,” said Wade Pearce, the ranch’s education director.
“If you have an eighth-grader that is reading on a third-grade level, you don’t hand them an eighth-grade book and say, ‘Try harder.’ You bring things down to the level where they are and bring them up from there.”
To help the students improve, the school keeps class sizes small — about 12 students per class with a teacher and paraprofessional — and they break lessons down into smaller chunks, Pearce says.
Students are also required to complete a study hall at home.
“It is definitely a team effort between the house parents and the teachers,” Pearce said.
Building a legacy
Since Day One, Staub has had a very important financial philosophy for the ranch: No money is spent on a project until all of the funding is secured.
“Being debt free is sort of a cornerstone of our business practices,” Staub said. “The hardest money to raise is that ongoing, month-to-month revenue. The easiest money to raise is for capital — bricks and mortar.
“If you can’t elicit support for a project, it’s really for one of two reasons: either you’re doing a poor job of articulating why you need it, or you just don’t need it. If you can articulate why it’s needed, it is our belief that the money will eventually come.”
Being good stewards of the funds they are given is just one of the lessons that Eagle Ranch staff teach in the Wings Initiative seminars. The initiative was launched in 1997 as way of teaching the Eagle Ranch model — which has been described as on the “cutting edge of best practices” by Georgia Association of Homes and Services officials — to potential startup children’s homes.
For a project that almost didn’t make it to Georgia, Eagle Ranch has become a source of pride for the Hall County community.
“Eagle Ranch is so unique. It is really beyond words how wonderful it is,” said Kit Dunlap, president of the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce. “(Staub) has created a loving home for children that the whole community and state has embraced.
“When (prospective business owners) come to Hall County, we take them down to the ranch because we want to show it off because it is so important to Hall County and this region.”
While reflecting on the ranch’s past, Staub says what he sees today is very different than his original vision.
“It started out as Eagle Boys Ranch, that’s all that I envisioned — just a home for 40 boys, but the vision has evolved well beyond that. Now we take girls also — and that’s a good thing because now we can keep brothers and sisters together,” Staub said.
“We’ve also extended counseling to the families of our children — we didn’t do that in the early days, and we started an on-campus school. When I first came here, I didn’t foresee (all of these things), but those are things that have sort of evolved as we’ve seen the changing needs of our kids and the children of this area.”
In its first 25 years of existence, Eagle Ranch has blossomed from a 180-acre campus to one that sprawls over 275 acres. It has served more than 600 troubled youngsters and if Staub has anything to do with it, the ranch will be around for many more anniversaries. But like every wise leader, Staub is cautious about proceeding without a well thought-out plan.
“We’re in a sort of incubation period where we’re thinking about (future plans) and bringing in expert opinions,” he said. “All of the things (that we are considering) are designed to meet needs that we see starting to percolate — we’ve just got to figure out which ones we are called to do.”
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