Feb. 20, 1989, may not be a date of any significance for some people, but for Shane Sullards, it represents the first day of the rest of his life.
It was his first day as a resident of Eagle Ranch.
“The first few days were hell,” he said. “I had no idea what to expect. ... I just thought that I’d be miserable. I really went into it what a pessimistic attitude — it just felt like I was doing my time.”
Sullards, now an Eagle Ranch graduate and co-owner of Lapdog Inc., a team development company, was ordered by a judge to either serve an 18-month sentence at a regional youth detention center or a group home.
Not wanting to see her son do time in a detention center, Sullards’ mother set out to find a group home and discovered Eagle Ranch.
“There was a lot of structure and a lot of rules that I didn’t have at home,” Sullards said. “The first three months at the ranch were definitely the worst three months of my life to that point. In hindsight, of course, I have a different perspective — but at that time, with those eyes, it was tough.”
The ranch may have started out as a place Sullards didn’t want to go to, but in the end, it was a place he didn’t want to leave.
“After around 15 months, we started thinking about my graduation plans,” he said. “I was finishing up my junior year in high school and I was given the opportunity to go home for my senior year.
“I talked with my counselors, and I just didn’t feel comfortable going home — it probably wouldn’t have been the place for me. I probably wasn’t strong enough to make the best decisions and would’ve gone back to high school with some friends that I probably shouldn’t have been around.”
Ultimately, Sullards decided to stay at the ranch for his senior year. After graduating from high school in 1992, Sullards stayed on a bit longer — working as an assistant counselor of sorts — while attending college. He finally left the ranch in 1994, but returned to Hall County to grow his business.
“My wife is a real family girl. She’s the youngest of five and they all live around here,” Sullards said. “We’ve lived in Sweden and Minnesota and North Carolina, but every time there was a transition, she would say, ‘What about Hall County.’
“And Hall County is a great place to be. I have no hesitation about building a life here — about building a family here. The opportunities for us have been immense — too many to chase.”
What started out as a court-ordered mandate taught Sullards lessons that he has now applied to his business as a facilitator for team-building exercises. Through life at the ranch, he said he learned the importance of working together for the greater good.
“By yourself you’re so limited, but with that collaborative effort, the result is so much more powerful,” he said.
Although he said he is better for having experienced life at Eagle Ranch, Sullards recognizes that not everyone has been as fortunate.
“Some of the guys that I grew up with haven’t made it. They’ve made choices that led to prison, and some have made choices that led to death,” Sullards said. “Without the grace of God and the influence of the ranch in my life — that’s where I was headed (also).
“The ranch kind of intervenes in people’s lives right when they need it most. The ranch can only do so much, but boy is it a catalyst for all kinds of positive things.”