Dogwood Ranch offers hope, stability for foster youth and at-risk families

LEAH GREENWOOD News Editor leah@ccheadliner.com

Dogwood Ranch sits nestled on almost 60 acres in Rogersville. The sprawling landscape, large indoor arena, barn and two cabins on the property provide a safe haven for foster youth and at-risk families within the heart of the Ozarks. Dana Lopez, founder and CEO of Dogwood Ranch, works to make the Ranch a place of belonging and a place of hope where the hard cases are never turned away.

“We do not believe that there is anybody who is too far gone in mental health or too far gone in relational trauma that they cannot find hope and some stability,” Lopez said. “It matters that you leave a little space open for hope and it’s amazing what that can do.”

Lopez moved from California to Missouri with her family in 2007. She and her husband Brian knew that the Lord was calling them to create family and long-standing relationships to fill the gaps for those who needed it most. “We thought that surely we can do something as a family to help those who need family the most,” Lopez said.

Growing up, Lopez’s parents always had an open door policy. “I’m an only child by birth,” she said, “but because of that open door policy, I’d go to sleep an only child and wake up to find four kids sleeping in the living room, and I’d be like, ‘Oh, someone had a rough weekend and needed a place to land.’ I’ve always grown up with that heart for young kids and young people who needed a safe spot.”

When developing the mission and focus for Dogwood Ranch, Lopez knew that she wanted to target foster youth —specifically, the kids in the system who were the hardest to place. Within the first few days of relocating to Missouri, Lopez and her husband immediately enrolled in foster care classes and became licensed so they could start fostering in the beginning of 2008. In their personal home, Dana noted, they have fostered 36 teenage girls.

Dogwood Ranch officially opened at the beginning of 2016. Healing Reins is an equine therapy program, and is the first of three different programs which are encompassed within the Ranch.

Sierra Pace is the full time therapist at Healing Reins. Previously, she did traditional office therapy, working primarily with foster and adoptive youth, as well as trauma survivors. She acquired her equine therapy certification and made the transition to Healing Reins a few years ago. Within the past year, Pace completed training to be fully certified and licensed in Equine EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing). This particular type of therapy helps to address significant post traumatic stress.

Each therapy session with Pace is also attended by Erika Metroka, the Ranch’s equine specialist. During the sessions, Metroka is in charge of the horse and safety of the client while Pace is in charge of a planning session and the mental health of the client. Metroka is the horse trainer and barn manager at Dogwood Ranch. She also oversees a number of volunteers.

Healing Reins mostly services foster/adoptive kids and military veterans. These were the two populations that Lopez felt were the most in need of creative, affordable, accessible and confidential therapy. The therapy sessions do cost money, however, everything is free for veterans.

About 60 percent of clients in Healing Reins are foster and adoptive kids. Military veterans make up about 30 percent, and the last percentage is composed of individuals and families who are struggling because they have faced significant traumatic events, even though they are biologically connected or blended families.

“We have a handful of vets who would tell you that they would not physically be alive today had they not found us and had we not found them,” Lopez said. “We do this for them and we do it for the fosters who have endured hell and have experienced so much beyond what they should have in their young lives and who are so desperate for some hope.”

For some of the clients of Healing Reins, this is the first time that they have touched or even been around a horse. The herd at Dogwood Ranch offers a variety so that each client can find the perfect match for their needs. “We have full-sized Quarter horses, a handful of mini ponies, a midsize mini pony and even a mini donkey that we use,” Lopez said. “When clients come out here for a meet and greet, it is their first exposure to see what horse they’re going to connect with and vice-versa. That is something we build on in that first session when they come out for therapy. Sometimes our team will also step in and strategically choose a horse for a client to work with.”

The majority of the sessions involve ground work with the horses. Sessions normally begin with the client learning how to approach a horse, halter them and handle them. “We will use all of those natural interactions with a horse to gain what we need to help that child heal and work through their mental health issues,” Lopez said. “We’ll use any of that to help set up expectations to help them find their weak points and make them their strengths, basically — communication, anger, attitude, tone of voice and body. When they learn to be calm and kind and collected in their emotions, that is then what their expectation is when they get on the bus the next morning, walk into class with, sit down at the dinner table with. Whatever we do out here in the pasture and arena is for the purpose of replication at home, at school, in the community.”

In the fall of 2019, the second program at Dogwood Ranch opened: The Haven. The Haven consists of two 2-bedroom, 1-bath cabins on the property which are available for 18-25 year olds who are single and have aged out of the system, but need help during this transitional period to become independent. Although it was never the original plan, The Haven became an all-girls facility because that was where the need was the greatest. A lot of clients who have stayed at The Haven have turned out to be single moms with their minor children.

“This is a transitional living program specific to kids of former foster youth — so, kids who are not in care anymore — who are in crisis,” Lopez explained.

The Haven does have certain structured expectation around it, all put in place to encourage a healthy, non-traumatic lifestyle. There are some curfews, a sliding scale on a residence fee every month and expectations on who is invited to the property and who isn’t. “We really try to use that as a practical way to help influence their relationships and make sure that they are only engaging in healthy ones and not dangerous ones,” Lopez said.

Lisa Chrastina is the care coordinator at The Haven. She interacts with the girls on a weekly, sometimes daily, basis and goes over the goals that they have set to help them succeed. Christina works with the girls on things such as budgeting, insurance, doctor visits and transportation.

“[Chrastina] really just pours her heart and soul into those girls and is an incredible mentor and just helps lead them through some of the most challenging and scary seasons of their life,” Lopez said.

The Haven also hosts life skills classes once a month, specifically for the girls who are on the property, but also for the ones who have moved on so that they can have continued connection if they want it.

“What we realized,” Lopez said, “is that when kids age out of the system, those older youth who are not connected back to any safe family, really struggle statistically. A lot of what happens — and we’ve seen it now dozens of times with the kids in our homes, so I understand it from the inside out — they are so done with the state and the system, that a lot of them are literally Chomping at the bit, so to speak, to get out of care and to be out on their own, but they really are not ready, especially without support. Over half of them end up homeless within the first 18 months, less than three percent will ever attend or graduate from college, less than half will ever have gainful employment. These are bright, smart, very capable kids, but when you don’t have some of those cornerstones of help around you…you [fall into] repeating cycles. At the broadest perspective, every program that we operate and everything we do is literally to break those cycles of trauma and to help shift a generation into wholeness. And we do that one very important life at a time. [We might not be able to boast large numbers of people helped] but we take very seriously our commitment to the one. And through the one, because they will eventually be parents themselves one day, the generation shifts.”

The final aspect of Dogwood Ranch is The Village. Around 2021, Lopez acquired the additional almost 28 acres that adjoin the existing property. The plan is to start breaking ground on this project later this year.

“We’re raising money right now, we need about $175,000 just to build the access road,” Lopez said. “My hope is to have it funded and built by the end of this calendar year.”

The Village will be a community of about 3,500 square-feet individual family foster homes. Foster parents will agree to a three to five year commitment to live in those homes and parent the toughest kids out there, who really need a lot of support. In addition, there will be a handful of families living in The Village who will be available 24 hours a day to provide crisis intervention and run interference when a child is disruptive.

“I appreciate so much what our psych hospitals do and lock-down and our rehabs and residential facilities treatment centers — they are all playing very critical parts — but at the end of the day, when kids are hitting crisis, and they are stabilized again through those entities, they need to come home to family,” Lopez said. “They need that supportive family environment because that’s really where the healing happens, through those relationships. We want to be able to provide that for kids on a bigger scale, but we do that by making sure our foster parents have what they need. Having somebody who is two doors down and answering the call, and is a friend and a part of this supportive community, I think, is going to make all the difference.”

Admittedly, it is asking a lot for such a large number of foster families to make this kind of commitment. As of right now, all of the “nitty gritty” details are not figured out since the main focus is on the infrastructure of getting The Village built. Once it is built, then the vetting process and fine-tuning plans can be figured out.

“We will make sure that whoever comes has experience, has a heart to parent tough kids, and is not one to easily give up,” Lopez assured. “We’re going to really want to make sure we bring families in through the door who really can see the long term.”

It takes a fair amount of money to keep a place like Dogwood Ranch up and running. To help cover the costs, Dogwood Ranch hosts two large fundraising events every year. The first is Boots ‘n’ Roots, which is being held on April 30, 2022. About 140 people buy tickets to attend and enjoy a night of socializing and a catered dinner inside the barn. The evening starts with a program in the indoor arena where people can learn about what Dogwood Ranch does, hear some testimonials and listen to a special guest speaker (this year is Sara Forhetz). Then, everyone moves up to the barn for dinner and music. This event, instead of having a silent auction, features something they call “clip it and send it.” A thin wire with clips runs just above the length of the dinner table. Throughout the evening, people will put their bills or checks on the wire and send it down the line. Someone is stationed in the office and gives updates on how much is raised and how much more is needed to reach the goal for the night.

In the fall, usually around the week before Halloween, Dogwood Ranch hosts a Fall Fest. This festival has a silent auction and various forms of entertainment (last year, there was a mechanical bull). This fundraising event is more family and kid oriented with different activities and food.

Additionally, Dogwood Ranch benefits from the Sertoma Duck Race and the Price Cutter Charity Championship Golf tournament.

Volunteers are always appreciated. If you are interested in volunteering, a registration link is on the website, or you can email Dana or anyone on the staff. For more information, please visit www.dogwoodranch.org.

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