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A place to call home

Staub’s dream is to show teens a future of hope

POSTED: February 3, 2008 5:04 a.m.
Robin Michener Nathan/The Times

This stone sign sits at the entrance to Eagle Ranch, a Christian-based group that serves boys and girls ranging in age from 8 to 18.It is located in South Hall County.

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When Eddie Staub was 27 years old, he came to Gainesville with little else but a dream. He had visions of creating a home for children who were struggling in their family lives, in school and with themselves.

After acquiring some land in Chestnut Mountain in South Hall County with the help of Georgia coach Vince Dooley and Georgia Tech coach Bill Curry, Staub sat down in a rickety old barn on the property, the only structure on site, and saw a glimpse of Eagle Ranch's future.

Hunched over bags of cement serving as his desk, Staub said he was struck by a thought echoing in his head. He grabbed a pencil and scribbled out in capital letters: "Attempt something so great for God, that it's doomed to failure unless God be in it."

Twenty-five years later, that framed piece of paper rests against the wall near the conference room in the Eagle Ranch administration building. Staub passes it daily as he serves the 54 children under the ranch's care.

Boys and girls ranging in age from 8 to 18 are referred to the ranch from schools, individuals and churches, as well as the Department of Family and Children Services and Department of Juvenile Justice. They come to the ranch from broken families living in metro-Atlanta and North Georgia, and they arrive to the sprawling 270-acre campus in need of hope and healing.

The rolling property now supports six boys' homes, two girls' homes, an on-campus middle school, support staff housing and an administration and counseling center. In addition to the eight beautiful homes in which six children live with a married couple who eagerly and voluntarily serve as house parents, Eagle Ranch has a charming stone chapel that overlooks a rippling 10-acre lake, a lake-side picnic pavilion and a horse pasture and barn that houses seven horses for girls' equine therapy.

The Christ-centered program aims to reunite children with their families after thorough individual, group and parent counseling, where certified counselors and house parents living with the children at the ranch mediate discussions that facilitate communication and respect between children and their birth parents.

"Our goal is to reunite our children with their families, but it takes on average two years, and some grow up with us," Staub said. "What we want to do is to make the children's families healthier so that one day when they go home it will be a better situation for everyone."
The eight homes where the 54 children and their house parents live look much like a typical suburban home, complete with landscaping, Christmas decorations and of course, a dog.

Staub said the married couples move to the houses, with their own children, for an average of four years to model a healthy family for Eagle Ranch residents - something many of the kids have never seen.

"I think they see a very healthy model lived out in front of them, a home that has grace and forgiveness and that is striving to be all that God wants it to be," Staub said.

And it was the consistent caring and love house parents Shawn and Julie Jones gave 15-year-old Eagle Ranch resident Chrissa that helped the Flowery Branch High School sophomore to reunite with her mother.

Chrissa came to the ranch in January 2006, and expects to graduate from Eagle Ranch in May 2008.

"At first I was kind of nervous about leaving my mom, but I wanted things to change, to get better," she said. She recalled unsettling arguments with her mother and feelings of self-doubt before she arrived at the ranch.

"I thought Eagle Ranch was going to be like every other psychologist and psychiatrist who just wanted to put me on medication and fix me," Chrissa said. "I thought that was what Eagle Ranch was going to be like, but they weren't.

"I realized that pretty much everybody we would be dealing with pretty much packed up their whole family to move to Eagle Ranch just to work with us. That's how I knew they actually cared and were dedicated to helping me," she said.

Chrissa said she was relieved to find that the counselors and house parents of Eagle Ranch didn't point to her as the root of all her family's problems.

Instead, they worked with the then-13-year-old and her mother to identify the source of their conflict, and spent nearly two years discussing the feelings and pain the conflict caused.

Furthermore, through the numerous house group sessions, family group sessions, and one-on-one counseling meetings for both the teen and mother, lasting patterns of communication were established that changed the way Chrissa related to her mother, and in turn, the way her mother related to her intelligent, athletic daughter.

"We learned how to get along with each other and how to work things out without yelling," Chrissa said. "They worked with the whole family, with me and my mom, to help me get back together with my mom.

"It's changed me a lot," she said. "I actually have a relationship with my mother now. I'm more receptive, and we don't argue as much. We just talk and hang out and have fun now. We actually have a connection now."

Chrissa cites Eagle Ranch's non-institutional approach to instilling positive communication and Christian ethics into kids as the primary factor in its success. She said having two house parents, roommates and a golden retriever named Levi, has helped her to put her single mother's situation into perspective.

"When we all get together we're like one big family. It's shown me what a full family would be like if I had a mom and a dad," Chrissa said. "It made me realize how much my mom works to take care of me.

"Most teens just don't understand how much their parents do for them," she added. "They don't understand how much (their parents) put on the line for them, how much they worry and care, and that they really do want the best for us."

Julie Janes, Chrissa's house mom at the ranch's Praise Home, said that raising children at the ranch is no different than anyone else who parents children - it's quite a challenge. And the ranch provides parents with opportunities to converse with other parents so they, too, can benefit from peer communication.

"(Parents) can talk to someone else who may be going through something similar. ... It makes them feel not so strange," Janes said.

When Staub founded the home in 1985, he originally established Eagle Ranch as a boys' home.

The ranch currently has four boys' homes and two girls' homes, but Staub has plans to build two more girls' homes. Eagle Ranch has currently received $4.7 million toward its "Future Generations" capital campaign to build the girls' homes, and is nearing its ultimate project fund goal of $5.4 million. In addition, Staub said Eagle Ranch has an operating budget of $2.9 million for 2008, and that no projects are begun until all funding is secured. Private donations generate the bulk of the ranch's fund, and it has maintained a debt-free policy since its founding.

Staub said he began to incorporate girls into the program in an effort to keep brothers and sisters together.
Justin, 13, came to Eagle Ranch with his twin sister, Brooke, about one year ago.

"I was having trouble in school and was picking fights and getting into trouble," Justin said. But after attending the Eagle Ranch middle school for two semesters, Justin has caught up about two grade levels, and said he is getting the one-on-one instruction he couldn't at public school.

"Now me and Brooke are here and we're getting all the help we need," he said. "You can do as well as you want to here, and that's applicable to life. We're improving in our grades and in our life at home. ... Instead of picking fights, now I'm breaking them up."

Justin explained the levels system at the ranch, where privileges are gained with residents' demonstration of responsibility or good judgement. As ranch residents prove themselves worthy, they advance from the crow level, to hawk, falcon and finally to the graduating eagle level.

Accordingly, they can gain permission to stay up an hour later, eat extra snacks in the evening, and older kids can earn the privilege to drive cars or obtain jobs.

Eagle Ranch graduate Shane Sullards can attest to the lasting impact his five years at the ranch had upon his life. After completing the program in June 1992, Sullards worked at the ranch for two additional years as an assistant counselor while attending Gainesville State College.

"I don't know if I can find the right words for how appreciative I am or how thankful I am ... There's probably not many times where a day passes and I don't think about the ranch," Sullards said. "There's no forcing of anything there ... they let you make your own decisions to your detriment."

When Sullards arrived at the ranch, he was a surly 14-year-old who had thoughts of ending his life. But after attending a Christian concert in Gainesville with his peers at the ranch, he said he came back his home, his eyes brimming with tears.

"My house mother asked me if there was anything I wanted to talk about. I said ‘no,' but I couldn't stop crying. She stayed up talking with me for hours and hours. That night I made a decision to give my life to Christ ... and to give Eagle Ranch a try, because at that point, I really hadn't."

Sullards is now a successful 33-year-old businessman and runs a company that facilitates communication and team development programs for corporations around the world. He attributes much of his success in business and marriage to the lessons of communication and generosity he learned at the ranch. In 12 years of marriage, Sullards said he and his wife, Stephanie, have yet to have a fight.

"It was really instilled in me at the ranch to do things for others without expecting recognition or any pay," he said. "You do it because it's character, it's integrity, it's doing what's right, and a lot of that came from Eddie and my house parents and counselors who led by example.

"Eddie's chosen to make a lot of sacrifices, and I think that trickles down to everybody at the ranch," Sullards said. "He affects everyone by the way he leads."

Staub said the ranch has served more than 600 children since the first boy moved onto the South Hall property.

"I feel God's pleasure here," Staub said. "I see them come to experience a God who loves them. They have a future full of hope. ... I see them become emotionally secure and succeed - they're lives are taking flight."




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