Watching horses walk his pasture under midday sun, Ken Mitchell talked about leaving his job and selling the family home to begin a life of unconventional Christian service.
With his wife Kelly, daughters Makenzie and Madison, and son Riley, Mitchell runs Stable Life, a nonprofit ministry that offers a range of services to a range of clients so diverse that it’s difficult to sum up their organization.
The family talked with The Times on Friday, describing how in 2007 they decided to leave behind their lives in a subdivision and enter a period of voluntary upheaval that brings them closer to their Christian mission centered on helping people with special needs.
From a home on Webb Girth Road, Ken serves individuals and families, both the able-bodied and those with special needs, with CrossFit strength training and other fitness training in groups or one-on-one. The family offers respite services, in which they look after special-needs children to offer parents some rest. They provide transportation for special-needs children of working parents and guardians. Kelly and Madison offer recreational horseback riding and lessons to the same cohorts.
And they do it all using only donations and their own money, drawing inspiration from 1 Corinthians 15:10.
“But by the grace of God I am what I am: and his grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain; but I laboured more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me,” the verse reads.
The words motivate the family to work hard for their clients, but they said it also motivates their clients to work hard for themselves in their own ways, whether they’re the young girl dealing with struggles within her family who comes out for horsemanship lessons or the grown man with cerebral palsy whose workouts help him become more self-reliant as his parents age.
“That’s what drives us, the focal point,” Ken said of the Bible verse.
The smattering of services they provide represents the areas of greatest need the Mitchells saw in Hall County and the work they are able to do from their home at 2515 Webb Girth Road.
Their current way of life is a far cry from the lives they left behind.
Ken is a former network engineer who worked in information technology.
“That was what I thought I would be doing forever. I didn’t talk to people; I talked to machines, and that was good with me,” he said, looking into his horse pasture. “But that wasn’t God’s plan, so we totally changed.”
He left his job at BellSouth so that he and Kelly could work as house parents at Eagle Ranch, a Christian home and school for children with physical, emotional or behavioral needs in Flowery Branch.
Eagle Ranch was an initial step into their new lives, but it wasn’t the beginning.
“Long before we even went to the ranch, we felt a stirring,” Kelly said. “We were going to church and doing that kind of stuff, Sunday school, teaching classes, but we started feeling this (question): But what do we do with this? This isn’t something that we’re supposed to keep to ourselves.”
Their time on the ranch allowed the family to pursue their mission of service while giving Madison the opportunity to pursue her love of horses through the ranch’s large equestrian program.
They spent four years at Eagle Ranch, after which the Mitchell parents said they felt called by God to go further in their service and dedicate themselves full time to ministry.
Beginning in 2011, they spent three years living with family while working as a mobile respite nonprofit. In 2014, they moved into the house on Webb Girth Road.
Now, the property has a horse pasture, the beginnings of trails cut into the forest and brush behind the home, a CrossFit gym in the garage and other amenities that allow the Mitchells to offer a communal space for both the able-bodied and those with special needs.
“What (is) sort of our heartbeat for Stable Life is to help bridge the gap between those with disabilities and those without,” Kelly said.
Rene England and her adult daughter Erin have known the Mitchells for about four years. They met in church.
Erin was born with a birth defect; she’s developmentally delayed and has partial vision, but she and her mother work out in Ken’s CrossFit program three times a week.
“It’s made a huge difference in Erin as far as her stamina, just her strength, her balance — which are all issues with her abnormality … it’s in her brain stem,” Rene said. “That’s where the motor pathways run through.”
Therapy is nothing new for the Englands, but Rene said her hope was not to get more therapy for her daughter, but to “get Erin into a fitness lifestyle, so it’s not just mom trying to make Erin do something.”
Erin has a part-time job at Blackshear Place Baptist Church and is a graduate of both West Hall High School and Lanier Career Academy. Her strength training has made her more effective at work and allows her to continue playing sports after school — particularly basketball.
“Her confidence level definitely has improved in that she knows she can do a lot of things, even as simple as when we’re at the grocery store; she always wants to carry the grocery bags,” Rene said. “She’s much more eager to help me put them in the car, or if we have a few bags she always wants to carry them all.”
After two years working out with Ken, Rene says the Mitchells have a “servant’s heart,” whether it be in their work at home or in Sunday school at Blackshear Place.
“We love what they’re doing. Love their ministry, their heart,” Rene said. “I just feel like they have a calling to serve individuals with special needs and their families. We just love them, and have become friends as well.”
While Ken works in the gym, Kelly and 16-year-old Madison help people to groom, lead and eventually ride horses, and Madison herself hopes to earn an occupational therapy degree that she could use to offer full-on equine-assisted therapy. The family’s current services are purely recreational.
Much of their horsemanship training is done with Solomon, a Tennessee walking horse.
“Solomon is pretty good at his little job,” Kelly said.
The gym, pasture and trails all fit into the Mitchells’ dream of creating a donation-funded and accessible public park that gives the entire community of Hall County a place to gather.
The goal was formed after the family toured Georgia’s parks and through their work with people with special needs.
Kelly said that at parks in Georgia, any fully accessible playground equipment was often off to one side of a park in a place that felt isolated — a problem that Ken said can run through the entire lives of people with special needs.
“One of the main problems that we’ve seen is that when someone who has special needs, someone who’s disabled, as they grow up in the school system they’re well taken care of. But once they’re out of school, there’s just not much out there,” Ken said. “We’re hoping we can be that bridge too, so (adults with special needs) can still be together and families can still be together.”