CHESTNUT MOUNTAIN — Those first few steps across the wide front porch may clop a little louder under the weight of a heavy heart.
But here, in a house surrounded by green pastures and wooded hilltops, girls loaded down with burdens many grown men would struggle to carry find a new address that simply reads “Mercy.”
Others will walk in the front door of “Blessing,” spend their nights in “Glory” or wake up every morning in “Praise.”
“Mercy” and “Blessing” are the two newest girls’ homes at Eagle Ranch, a home in Chestnut Mountain for boys and girls from across North Georgia and the Atlanta area.
“We never name homes for anyone,” said Eddie Staub, Eagle Ranch’s founder and executive director. “We try to do gifts or fruits of the spirit. I want my kids walking into a building that says ‘Hope’ or ‘Faith.’”
Eagle Ranch, founded in 1985 for at-risk boys, expanded to serve girls in 2001. Its first girls’ homes were called “Glory” and “Praise.”
The only home of its kind in North Georgia, Eagle Ranch serves children ages 8-18 with family problems and a range of other issues. Its mission is to foster hope, healing and a chance for a better life.
The two new homes will provide living space for 12 more girls and Eagle Ranch staff, called house families. The expansion doubles the girls program and brings the total number of youngsters served to 66.
“Blessing” and “Mercy,” built through private donations, both offer about 7,000 square feet of living space.
Girls who currently live in “Glory” and “Praise” will begin moving into the new homes this week. The first girls’ homes will be renovated and ready for move-ins next year.
Ken Mitchell, his wife, Kelly, and their three children, are the house family moving from across the Eagle Ranch campus to “Mercy.”
Mitchell, a house parent for the past two years, said the new homes will give girls more of their own space.
“We can really do things with the girls and have a community where we can do ‘girl things’ like horses,” he said.
In that regard, the view from the front of both new homes looks right out at a riding ring.
The homes were part of a three-year, $5.15 million Eagle Ranch capital campaign that also includes construction of the school’s basement, endowments and renovations of the boys’ homes.
Inside the new girls’ digs, the look and feel is a comfortable atmosphere created by design, explained Stefanie Long, director of communications for Eagle Ranch.
“We wanted it to be a peaceful environment so they can heal better,” she said.
Glossy hardwood floors stretch across the living area to a stone fireplace, where a painting of Jesus embracing a child stands above the mantel. Pictures of galloping horses and other placid pastoral scenes hang on the surrounding walls.
In the kitchen, stainless steel appliances stand along wide countertops and wood cabinets. On the wall above the entryway hangs a painted wooden sign that reads “Family.”
The girls’ rooms, painted in warm tones and fully furnished, also feature something many girls only dream of: their own bathroom.
“It’s real homey and that’s important to us, that they’re really homey and livable,” Staub said. “We don’t want it to have an institutional feel. We want it to be like (the girls) are moving into a ‘home.’”
The Eagle Ranch campus covers 270 acres in South Hall and includes six boys’ homes, a SACS-accredited school, chapel, athletic center, 10-acre pond and horse riding amenities among other facilities. Construction of a new lodge near the pond is well underway.
The Christian-centered nonprofit depends almost entirely on private donations for its capital projects and annual operating budget of $3.2 million.
Tuition is based on a family’s income, and no child is excluded because of financial circumstances, Long said.
And with economic conditions putting a squeeze on nonprofits everywhere, it is no small miracle that Eagle Ranch built and furnished the new “Blessing” and “Mercy” homes while continuing to operate debt-free.
“The function of the home has to work, not just the beauty of it,” Mitchell said. “God’s provided all the money to do this. One of the most amazing things is how we’ve been able to expand, with the economy like this, because of God’s provision for us.”