Jennifer Hope, EdD, is not easily deterred, not when she believes in something. In fact, a boss once described her as tenacious, and while that word initially felt harsh to her, now she fully embraces it.
“I’m grateful for that trait because you have to be committed to hang on when things are taking longer than you want,” Hope remarked.
For the last five years, Hope has been leading a cause to bring about change for at-risk children across Franklin County.
Her goal has been to open a comprehensive youth facility that offers safe, family-style homes along with alternative schooling, counseling services, enrichment programming, weekly service learnings and spiritual growth for children and older youth who are either in the foster care system or simply not succeeding at home or in a traditional school.
In 2014, Hope launched a grassroots nonprofit and nondenominational Christian organization that she so appropriately named Hope Ranch of Missouri, bringing together a who’s who of local professionals from the fields of law enforcement, education, social services, business and medicine to serve as board members.
Among the founding members were then-Franklin County Sheriff Gary Toelke, retired judge Larry Davis, and former Franklin County Commissioner and longtime educator Ed Hillhouse.
Since then the 12-member board has been able to acquire nearly 200 acres of land in Stanton (donated by Jim and Peggy Piotraschke) where they can build the ranch, develop plans for construction and, after researching evidence-based programs and visiting similar communities with successful programs and facilities for at-risk children, create a plan for services.
Now, after much hard work, careful planning and extensive preparation, Hope Ranch is on the cusp of making its biggest strides yet.
The nonprofit has introduced a “Season of Hope Pledge Drive” to raise the final $350,000 needed to move forward and finally get the doors open.
“That amount combined with our current assets and approved grants ($1.4 million) and two anticipated capital grants ($1.3 million) will secure the funds needed ($3.1 million) to move forward with the next stage of the construction process,” said Hope.
“We have the land, the program and the plans. We have a team of experts. Now we need a hand in fundraising,” she remarked.
Once 100 percent of the needed funds are secured, Hope Ranch will seek bids to begin construction on Phase 1 — one living unit with two homes and part one of the school, which will have four classrooms, a counseling office and school office. Phase 1 will allow Hope Ranch to serve 12 resident children and 48 classroom students.
“The goal is to have shovels in the ground by March,” Hope said. “Then we can be open by the end of next year.”
Purpose Is to Break the Cycle
Before she became a philanthropist and nonprofit founder, Hope worked in education, first as a teacher, then a principal and finally as a school administrator for both the Union and Washington public schools districts.
That’s where the idea for Hope Ranch was born.
“I saw children who had such potential, sharp kids, but due to circumstances beyond their control — their home life or other things — they found themselves in trouble, in school and otherwise,” said Hope, noting many of them had lost any hope of having a different kind of future.
“They were just trying to survive, and they were not looking at options that could lead to a happy future. They had given up hope and, for some of them, their goal was either to get on government assistance or follow an illegal path . . . It was a cycle.”
Among her fellow educators, the talk was always about how there had to be a way to make a difference for these children, to stop them from “falling through the cracks.”
“You would hear people comment, ‘If I could just take them home for a while . . . ,’ because the students would make such progress, but they’d go home and things would happen and they’d take five steps back,” said Hope. “But if I could just give them that love and structure that they needed . . . and that is kind of where the whole idea for Hope Ranch started building.”
In 2013, Hope decided to put her money where her mouth is. She took early retirement and began the work of making Hope Ranch a reality.
Since then, no part of the process has been easy, and everything has taken much longer than she wanted or expected.
“That gets a little frustrating,” she admits.
But where other people might have given up in the face of such challenging circumstances, Hope has persevered and stayed focused. She credits people like Gary Toelke and other members of the board with helping her create Hope Ranch the right way, even if it hasn’t been the fast track.
“We didn’t want to just slap something together. We wanted to do it right,” Hope told The Missourian. “The program is going to be right, the couseling is going to be effective. What we are going to do is going to make a difference, or we don’t want to do it.”
That began with finding the right location.
“We knew we wanted something rural,” said Hope. “We could have built this three years ago in town, but we wanted that environment and atmosphere for the kids that blocks out the noise of everything so they can concentrate on getting better themselves and taking advantage of what we have to offer.
“But we also wanted to be centrally located, because we know the key is to keep the kids anchored in these communities. So our focus is just Franklin County. We don’t have a desire to grow into anything huge. We want to keep it small, focused and effective.”
To build the facility the way the board envisions — family-style homes with no more than six children and live-in houseparents to provide guidance and structure — required time to hash out all of the details and meet requirements for things like building codes, which kept adding to the final cost and continued to slow the time frame.
The silver lining to that was it provided time to draw in even more local professionals to provide support and services. Hope calls them “the secret weapon.”
‘Exactly What I Had in Mind’
Retired Franklin County Sheriff Gary Toelke said it was “years of frustration related to adult offenders” that led him to get involved with Hope Ranch.
“For years I have seen rehabilitation programs, prison population reduction programs, early release, etc., put in place intended to change the attitudes of adult offenders,” said Toelke, of Union. “Yet with all of the changes implemented to improve our system, the recidivism rate for an offender after three years of release is now close to 70 percent. It raises to around 80 percent after five years.”
These are nationwide statistics, he pointed out.
Toelke said he realized that “we have been working on the wrong end of the problem.” The common denominators among inmates are: broken homes, no values and no home life.
“They have no family structure, thus leading to a breakdown in values, no positive direction, that leads to drug abuse and crime,” he said. “I developed the opinion that it would be easier to change the hearts and minds of our youth than change adults who are set in their ways.
“I thought it would be great if there was a program to work with children 24-7 rather than just an hour or two a week . . . Hope Ranch was exactly what I had in mind as something that could change the direction of good, gifted children who are at risk for various reasons,” said Toelke.
Ron Cowan, Washington, is one of the newest board members at Hope Ranch, although he considers himself more of an “encourager” and “prayer partner” than board member. He got involved because, like everyone else, he wanted to make a difference.
Cowan knows personally the difficulties teachers encounter helping students who don’t have a home environment or foundation to cope with the complexities of life. His wife, daughter and several other relatives are all teachers.
He was asked to provide input on a small project for Hope Ranch, and the more he learned about it and the children it would help, the more he was drawn in. He and his wife, Jane, have adopted two daughters and know “what a task, and blessing it can be to nurture, support and encourage a child.”
They also have served as missionary agents for Ninos de Mexico, an orphanage for abandoned children outside of Mexico City, and witnessed hundreds of children growing up to find success.
“So, we know there can be great results,” said Cowan. “It takes time, it takes effort, it takes help . . . I am confident this mission of Hope will be accomplished.”
Lee Parks, D.O., Union, who has been a board member for Hope Ranch since its beginning, said the children served by Hope Ranch won’t be the only ones who benefit — the entire community will be better for it.
“Children who grow up in the midst of chaos, without being given a firm foundation for understanding the world and their place in it, are unlikely to become the productive and happy individuals they were meant to be,” said Parks. “To allow that amazing potential for growth and the ability to contribute to society to go to waste is an evil we cannot afford.
“Childhood traumas and neglect that go unaddressed cause mental, physical and emotional problems throughout life and their effects are felt for generations to come.”
The Honorable Judge Davis, who serves on the board of trustees for Hope Ranch, agreed.
“Having been a judge of the juvenile court for many years and having presided over more ‘messy’ divorce cases than I want to remember, I can testify that Hope Ranch will fill a void in our child welfare system that is sorely needed,” Judge Davis stated.
Who Will Be Helped?
The children who will live at Hope Ranch and others who will attend the alternative school on the property will primarily be children who are in the foster care system here, said Hope, stressing that the property will not be a home for juvenile offenders or teens in rehab for addiction.
“If a child has violated the Safe Schools Act . . . then they are not eligible to be at Hope Ranch,” said Hope, noting the ranch will have an admission team and admission process.
“This will be for kids who are in the foster care system, and some of them are struggling,” she said. “Some of the younger ones are having what are commonly called meltdowns . . . our goal is to help them process that in a safe way.
Hope Ranch will be open to children ages 6 to 19, and plans are to eventually extend the upper age limit to 21.
“We realize there is a need for older teens who are not in foster care anymore, but they don’t really have a home base,” said Hope, explaining many are homeless, but often “couch surfing” among their friends. “They are trying to finish school. They want to go to a trade school or college. They have had to leave home either because of drug use or some other violence. That has been recognized as a huge need for Franklin County.”
Faith Is the Fifth Pillar
Several evidence-based programs and therapy models have been selected to address the unique needs of at-risk youth within Hope Ranch’s “Five Pillar Program Model.” These include:
• Family-style homes to provide a nurturing environment. Each home will have a maximum of six children and live-in house parents. Married Christian couples will be hired to serve as house parents. They will receive frequent, high-quality training, support and supervision, and collaborate with counselors and teachers to provide support for the children;
• An alternative-therapeutic school to provide individualized instruction meeting the unique needs of each student;
• Trauma-focused counseling services, along with family counseling and transitional programming for older youth;
• A service learning program that includes weekly volunteering activities throughout Franklin County to teach the youth the value of giving back to the community while also developing a work ethic and pre-employment skills; and
• A spiritual guidance program that includes collaboration with youth groups and churches to offer optional Bible study meetings on campus.
That last pillar is critical, said Hope. In fact, she describes it as “glue” for the other four.
“We want to give these children hope,” she said, adding that this entire endeavor of opening the ranch has been “a faith walk” for her.
“We would love to see them get anchored into a church, maybe one that a grandparent, aunt or uncle, or maybe one of their house parents goes to,” Hope said.
Children don’t have to be Christian to receive services at Hope Ranch. Those who opt out of church attendance will participate in an alternative character education program, said Hope.
Over the years, Hope Ranch has received numerous donations, particularly for various professional services needed to get the plans and programs ready to go. More recent donations have included:
• Gently used, “almost nearly new” appliances for the homes donated by Lutheran Senior Services;
• Storage space donated by Paula Dace of St. Clair; and
• Educational resources and textbooks donated by the Union RXI School District.
“They (the school district) are getting a new series, and they had some books in great condition, so they donated them to us instead of just getting rid of them,” said Hope, noting the books and resources are not out of date and are still currently being sold.
Having someone like Dace, who is not on the Hope Ranch board, step forward to provide a much-needed service to the nonprofit has not been unusual, and that has been one of the most amazing things about the last five years, said Hope.
“We needed storage, and (Dace) appeared to offer help. Things like that have been happening throughout the five years,” she remarked, noting there are many other examples.
All of the donations that Hope Ranch has received since 2014 (a complete list is available at www.hoperanchmo.org) have allowed the organization to pour more of its resources into getting the doors open.
Holiday Pledge Drive
Hope Ranch is kicking off a “Season of Hope” pledge drive with a goal of raising $350,000. The drive actually consists of four separate drives:
1. Founding Partner Challenge Drive — this includes naming opportunities for donations that range from $15,000 to $100,000 or more.
People or businesses that donate a specific amount will be honored by having their name put on a specific room or building. The pledge can be donated immediately or over time. The goal is to have all naming rights reserved by Jan. 16.
Those interested, should contact Hope at 636-649-9901 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
2. Individual Pledge Drive — This can be a collection of donations from family, friends, co-workers and often includes Facebook donation drives and promotion of Hope Ranch on Giving Tuesday (this year, Dec. 3). The drive runs through Dec. 31. Prizes will be awarded to the top three collectors in January.
Pledges should be made by check, Facebook pledge or online at www.hoperanchmo.org, as a security measure.
3. Santa Paws Dog Walk — Dog-lovers can attend a this dog walk at Veterans Memorial Park Saturday, Dec. 7, from 10 a.m. to noon. Registration is $20 and includes a special Santa Paws fleece headband for the walker and a hand-made Christmas bandana for the dog, as well as a Santa bag of goodies for both.
The event will include selfies with Santa, cookies and hot cocoa, games and vendors. There also will be an optional dog gift exchange, where you bring a wrapped dog toy and trade with someone else.
Walkers also are encouraged to collect individual pledges for the chance to win dog- and/or Christmas-themed prizes, which will be awarded at the event. Pledges should be made by check, Facebook pledge or online at www.hoperanchmo.org, as a security measure.
To register for the Santa Paws Walk, go to www.eventbrite.com/e/santa-paws-dog-walk-in-the-park-tickets-81076025575 or contact Natasha at 636-649-9901 or email@example.com.
4. Pledge of Hope: Turning a House Into a Home — A list of furniture needs and costs for each home has been compiled, and people are able to pledge the dollar amount needed for a specific item. For example, someone can pledge $325 to pay for a twin bed with platform or $1,000 to pay for a 7-foot dining table.
This drive will continue until all items needed are reserved.
Pledges should be made by check, Facebook pledge or online at www.hoperanchmo.org, as a security measure.
Special Merchandise Sales
Two local artists have created limited edition items to benefit Hope Ranch of Missouri. Kelly Brinkmann of Art & Souls Creative Studio has made dove necklaces and ornaments using reclaimed clay, and Dave Arnold has created Christmas cards inspired by a painting of doors in Italy that he created and donated to Hope Ranch to auction.
Available in packs of 10, the cards feature the inscription, “Wishing You a Very Merry Christmas” and “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him and he with me,” from Revelations 3:20.
The image is meaningful for Hope Ranch, which offers a welcoming, open door to at-risk children and teens who feel they have been cast aside, their worth unrecognized, and therefore have been unsuccessful in traditional foster care settings.
The same is true of the dove necklaces and ornaments made using reclaimed clay, which is clay that is tossed aside and forgotten about in the pottery studio.
“The original intent for the pottery piece was never achieved,” reads the card that comes with each piece. “That all changed when the clay was reclaimed . . . the mission of Hope Ranch is to reclaim the lives of at-risk children and teens who feel they ave been cast aside . . . ”
All of these items are available online at https://artandsouls.com/product-category/hoperanchofmissouri/.
They also will be sold at various booths and events that benefit Hope Ranch.
Hope Ranch of Missouri is currently seeking volunteers to help with upcoming community events. For more information and to sign up as a volunteer, go to https://ttsu.me/hrvolunteers. For more information on Hope Ranch, go to www.hoperanchmo.org.