Wash. ranch helping troubled boys for 50 years
Some come after getting hooked on drugs.
Some come after getting hooked on drugs.
Others arrive angry, unruly, disrespectful.
All leave with their lives changed, some profoundly, some in small ways.
On July 28, many are coming back.
That's when Flying H Youth Ranch, a residential program for troubled teen boys in Naches, is celebrating its 50th anniversary with an open house and barbecue. About 300 people - past residents, or ranch boys, former staff members and community supporters - are expected. It's a way for ranch staff to say thanks to the surrounding community as well as reflect on the mission that originated in 1962 - to help boys struggling with behavior issues.
That's when the Rev. Allen Hires opened the ranch, determined to make a difference in boys' lives through Christian teachings. After his death in 1987, son Gregg took over as administrator for about 10 years.
The sylvan spot on Chinook Pass runs a year-round program, part academic, part ranch work and part Biblical practice. Nonprofit and nondenominational, the ranch usually serves 12-16 boys, from eighth grade through high school.
"These are boys who are struggling, often very defiant, noncompliant, experimenting with drugs. Most come from broken homes," explained Steve Alumbaugh, administrator. "These are guys who need to take responsibility for themselves."
Most boys arrive from urban areas in Washington, Oregon and Idaho, although they can come from anywhere in the country.
"If they need to be here, we'll take them," said Alumbaugh.
Once there, boys stay a minimum of 18 months. During the school year, they mix studies with chores around the ranch; in the summer, two mornings a week are devoted to school, the rest of the time to outdoor chores, such as baling hay and chopping firewood. Recreation includes fishing, swimming and sailing.
"This is actually a pretty cool place," Alumbaugh mused. "Maybe some teens aren't happy about being dropped off here, but when I was a kid, I would have loved it."
In its 50-year history, the ranch has served more than 2,000 boys.
But it wasn't always so. Alumbaugh described Flying H's past as colorful, first opening as a dude ranch in the early 1940s, centered around a rustic lodge that's still the central building in the compound. During the 1950s, the ranch gave way to the Flying H Supper Club. After that, the story gets checkered, Alumbaugh said.
"Then it turned into a place of ill repute, with the lodging upstairs in a brothel type setting. Three years later, it shut down."
The senior Hires steered the ranch in a decidedly different bent when he purchased the land in 1961.
The mainstay of the mission now is personal development, both character and educational. The former is emphasized through Christian values and Biblical studies, Alumbaugh explained; educational growth comes through hands-on studies.
Yakima native Joe Tucker, who spent a year and a half at Flying H beginning when he was 16 in the late 1980s, will be attending the anniversary open house because he feels greatly indebted to the staff.
"Being there was absolutely the best thing that ever happened to me, hands down," the 41 year old said. "My parents had no control over me, and I disrespected all authority. But the people were very patient with me, and they didn't give up on me."
Tucker, who credits the ranch with teaching him work ethics, was later trained as a mechanic and now works in the parts department at Bob Hall's Honda dealership.
According to Bruce Gillespie, Flying H school principal, it's not unusual for alums to have good memories of their experiences at the ranch.
"All the old hands say the survival hike (an eight-day backpacking trip offered every summer) was their favorite thing here," he said.
Gillespie, 57, has been an instructor at the ranch for 22 years; his wife, Sherry, teaches photography.
Six teachers cover core subjects with additional offerings, such as welding and wood shop, also available. Class size is limited to six. The school, called Hope Academy, is fully accredited and can award high school diplomas.
In 2008, the ranch built a new school, with five classrooms, a library and equipment costing $329,000, paid largely through donations and grants.
Nine couples comprise the full-time staff, serving as social workers, educators, mentors and disciplinarians. As missionaries, they raise their own financial support through churches and family. All live at the ranch.
Ben Creach, 27, who grew up in Zillah, teaches work skills, overseeing the boys' chores, such as feeding the 14 head of cattle and shoveling snow. He's gratified when "I create a work ethic in them because they'd rather be playing video games."
But since all electronics are taken away, boys spend a lot of their free time reading, Gillespie noted.
Bennett Hoglund, 16, doesn't mind chores because it gets him outside. "I like bucking hay; you're putting your head down and doing it, getting the job done."
More challenging, he said, is "living with about 10 guys all the time, 24/7."
He misses his family in Portland but looks forward to summer hiking and swimming at the ranch. In his six-plus months at Flying H, he said he's only been in trouble once, for swearing.
Ranch boys earn points for positive behavior, which can be parlayed into privileges, such as watching movies or playing pool. On the flip side, bad behavior could mean having to pound river rock into gravel.
"We call it living by Christian family values; the secular world says it's a behavior modification model," Alumbaugh said.
Although the ranch staff has dealt with runaways, fighting and lying, they've experienced notable accomplishments, too, said Gillespie. Recently, one boy who came to the ranch with a background of felonies, managed to earn a high school diploma, get the felony charges expunged from his record and is serving in the Coast Guard.
However, graduation is only one way to measure success, Alumbaugh maintained.
"Our program is 100 percent successful because all the boys have heard the word of God, they've seen it put into action by the staff and all will know how to make the choice of truth in the end," he said.
Before coming to the ranch, Alumbaugh, who is 60, worked as a stockbroker in Vancouver, Wash. The juxtaposition of the investment and working with troubled teens couldn't have been more striking, he says. "It was a huge paradigm shift. But it's not all about making money anymore. My wife (Terri) and I agree this has been a life-changing experience. I can't think of anything more satisfying."
Funding for Flying H comes from churches, individual donations and income earned from selling hay and leasing land to a cherry orchard. Boys' families are asked to pay 30 percent of their adjusted gross income, but Alumbaugh said they try to help families find funding sources and are flexible about hardship cases. The ranch has to receive an average of $1,250 a month per boy to meet expenses, he said.
Gillespie said staff members believe in what they're doing and have faith the boys will grow into more responsible adults.
"It's been our most rewarding life experience having an impact on these boys," he said.