At Eagle Ranch, parents help their children with homework, care for them when they are sick and comfort them when they have nightmares.
It’s a bittersweet task, both challenging and rewarding, to raise children while their families go through tough times.
The ranch, a Christian-based children’s home, has 10 couples working as house parents for boys and girls ages 8 to 18.
“It’s really foundational,” said Eddie Staub, Eagle Ranch founder and executive director. “Everything starts with the house parents. You’ve got to have stability, structure and nurture in that home. The counseling plays off it, the school plays off it and the family seeing what a healthy home looks like — everything plays off of that. That’s the reason it’s important for us to get that right.”
John and Jordan Cunnings have been house parents at Eagle Ranch for seven years. They are parents in the Blessing Home for high school girls.
Jim and Amanda Phelps, house parents to 8- to 12-year-old boys in the Hope Home, have also been house parents at the ranch for seven years. Both couples were involved with the ranch before becoming house parents.
“We were here about five years total,” said Amanda Phelps, who previously worked in the ranch’s sixth- through ninth-grade school. “He was here three years and then I was here two when I left the school and felt we were done working with ranch.”
Jim Phelps said they soon learned God had other plans.
“The work is demanding, and we felt called to work with kids in a church setting, but not so much here,” he said. “But those years here were the best three years I had spent in my life. This is a very unique place.”
Supporting house parents
Being a house parent is challenging, Jim Phelps said, but Eagle Ranch provides the support a couple needs to be successful in the role.
“The mission of the ranch is to work with children and to work with families,” Jim Phelps said. “But I think the hardest part is God calls us as house parents here to work on ourselves first and foremost.”
House parents are charged with helping families, but Jim Phelps said it’s important to remember house parents and their own families aren’t perfect either.
“You’re very open and raw, and that’s just very hard for any human,” he said. “But at the same time, that’s so exciting, because you get growth and support here like no other place on earth.”
Stefanie Long, director of communications, said house parents at the ranch receive marriage counseling, time off for regular date nights, retreats and more.
Both the Phelps family and the Cunnings family have children of their own. The Cunnings have two daughters, Cana, 2, and Eden, 4, and the Phelps have a daughter Olivia, 7, and a son Benjamin, 5.
Jordan Cunnings said the struggles of a house child’s family can reflect on her own family. She said it’s hard, but often it helps them work through their own difficulties.
“I think that’s neat because it shows what God can do here,” Amanda Phelps said. “You don’t have to be perfect. You don’t have to be the best parent. And nobody expects you to be.”
Jordan Cunnings said house parents from different houses often turn to each other with questions or advice.
This extensive support system means Eagle Ranch house parents have a remarkably long average tenure. The longest house parents at the ranch stayed 13 years, and the average at the ranch is four years.
The national average, Staub said, is about 18 months.
“If you’ve got a revolving door with your house parent couples, it really works against the healing process for these children and their families,” Staub said. “You can’t get any continuity. A lot of their life experiences have been people not being there for them. So if you have couples that only stay 18 months, that whole scenario is replayed in their minds.”
Choosing house parents
Because the house parents are such a vital role on the ranch, the hiring process is meticulous.
“It’s really extensive because this is such a demanding job,” Staub said. “Folks need to be a good fit to work here, for them and for us. It’s like a two-day interview process, in addition to calling references and all those other things.”
Staub said they have a set of criteria to predict how effective a couple will be as house parents. It’s about more than their resumes or personalities, he said.
“We really try to sense a calling,” Staub said. “This is a spiritual work. You can’t do this on your own strength. You’d just burn out. So that’s a level for us— that they feel they’ve been called by God to do this work.”
Long said the ranch is always accepting applications from interested couples, because the process can take some time – including the transition out of current careers, selling or renting homes, etc.
Being a house parent is a sacrifice, in many ways, and Staub said it’s important to have a “culture of commitment” amongst the house parents.
He needs to know that when the job gets difficult, parents won’t bail on the children.
“We really feel like this is one of our most important hires here, to make sure we get folks that feel called to be here,” he said. “Also, that sort of have the emotional makeup to do this kind of work. I couldn’t do it, to be honest with you.
“It’s just a special kind of person that can come in and step into these children’s pain and walk that journey with them.”