Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Clueless in Central Texas

Someday I will write a job description covering every single item Jerry and I have had to develop some level of competence in while building Down Home Ranch, starting with trenching a sewer line (thank you yet again, St. David’s!) right on up through achieving licensure as an ICF-MR facility.

(All in all, just between you and me, I’d rather trench a sewer line.)

But never mind, today’s post is really about one skill set in particular, that of…detective.

Example: A few weeks ago Sterling’s mom Cecilia called me and said that Sterling had told her he didn’t want to live at the Ranch anymore and neither did Kelly so he was planning to go live with Cecilia, and Kelly was planning to come back and live with Jerry and me. Did I have any idea what he was talking about?

First I’d heard of it. I promised to do some sleuthing.

So I caught Sterling just as he came on duty in the barn and asked if I could talk with him. I asked him about what his mom had said.

“No,” he replied, “I not say that.”

Well, not in so many words, but was it true, I asked, that he didn’t want to live at the Ranch anymore?

“I love the Ranch. I do something bad?”

“No, no, no,” I said. “It’s just your mom said you called and she thought you said you wanted to go back and live with her.”

Sterling looked down at the manure fork he was holding and stubbed the tines into the dirt, a look of infinite sadness spreading over his face.

“I want to marry your daughter,” he said glumly.

A clue!

“So this has to do with getting married?” I asked. “What does that have to do with living with your mom?”

“Don say we not get married and be at Ranch.”


I went in search of Don. He was busily sending his Operations staff off on daily assignments, and really needed me hanging around like a back-stage groupie. Nonetheless, I waited until he had a chance to catch his breath and said I was sure this was a misunderstanding, but… Sterling and Kelly thought he’d said that they couldn’t get married and live at the Ranch.

Nope, never said that. Didn’t know what they were talking about, couldn’t imagine what…oh, wait a minute.

He was in the truck a few days before with Kyle and Sterling, and they both wanted to talk about their girlfriends and when they would get married. Don had his mind on business at hand and said something like, “Guys, right now we’ve got Ranch work to do here and I’m not talking about getting married.”

Somehow this translated into: "You can’t get married and still live at the Ranch."

So. This business about going back to live with parents was the solution Kelly and Sterling had come up with to a serious problem.

Bless their hearts!  How awful that they’d thought they had to choose between the Ranch and everything they love about it—friendships, jobs, activities—and each other.

But it was a bargain they were willing to make.

I got them together at break time and explained what I was pretty sure had happened. Soon they were all smiles again.

Still, a mystery persists. We see each other every day. Why didn’t they ask me, or Don, for clarification? Why did they feel they had to face this and come up with a solution all by themselves?

I’ll probably never know, but it sure doesn’t lessen my admiration for their ingenuity in coming up with it in the first place.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

A Growing Concern

It being a beautiful day, I headed up toward the office on my bicycle to polish off a little work before the evening's festivities began with the Cattlemen for Cancer Gala Benefit tonight.

I peered through the trees and saw folks gathered around the retaining wall of Barnabas House.  Curious as to what they were up to, I headed over thataway. 

Terry and Alan sat in camp chairs monitoring the progress of the project, which quickly revealed itself to be a 3' X 5' raised-bed garden plot that Barry and Michael were building. 

Sterling perched on the grass offering helpful comments.

I agreed the chosen spot was ideal--lots of sun and good drainage, but offered the observation that the 15 plants they had spread out along the retaining wall (3 pepper plants, 3 squash, 1 tomato, and I forget what all else) might prove a little ambitious for the tiny plot.

"Oh, ye of little faith," Barry said.  "Wait, and be amazed."

Well, maybe Barry knows something I don't.  I always pass on my copies of the Mother Earth News to him, but can't claim to have always read every article therein.

Meanwhile, Andrew, who thought up the project and picked out the plants, wandered up to offer advice as Michael and Barry bolted the frame together.

"So, Andrew," I asked, "how come you're loafing around while Michael and Barry do all the work?"

Andrew lifted his eyebrows and peered down at me with his best  "Polish professor" countenance.

"I " he said archly "am the cook."

  Matter settled.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Must Be Neat, Needn't Be Pretty

One of the most frustrating aspects of running Down Home Ranch is trying to find good people to live in the houses with our Ranchers. I’m not saying the job is easy. Jerry and I did it for 41/2 years, and we know.  Admittedly, it’s a challenge, but what important job isn’t? The years in Gabriel House I still count as among the  happiest of my adult life.

Being a Resident Assistant is a lot like parenthood in that it requires you to be there—really be there. Not sitting on the couch with your nose in a book, or staring out the window pondering your existence. You are defender, teacher, friend, confidant and coach all rolled up into one.  Not to mention chief cook.  If you want to matter in life, be the cook.

My mantra is this: Being an RA is the easiest job in the world to do poorly, and the hardest to do well. That’s because you really have to be self-motivated to keep up the energy level in the home. It’s easy to sit back and do the minimum required, but alas, that’s when the fun (and the effectiveness) drains out of the job.

So…I got to thinking about the scene in Mary Poppins, when the children decide to make up a list of qualifications for the perfect nanny. I thought: Why not ask the guys who their “perfect” RA would be?

So I went out in search of the four men of Barnabas House, who were on morning break from their jobs.

Andrew immediately asked, “Well, Judy, what are my choices here?” Good question, but I was speaking hypothetically.

“Well, you tell me, Andrew—what kind of person would you like in the house?” I asked. 

Alas, Andrew was not up for hypothetical.

“Well,” he said, raising his hands up in the air in a gesture of impatience, “I really need to know what the choices are, my friend.”

I asked if it was important to have someone who likes to fish, because Andrew loves to fish and it’s his favorite topic of conversation. But no, he said, that wasn’t important. He then named two people he’d had as house managers in the past at other agencies. Coincidentally, I knew them both, so that gave me some idea of what he was thinking.

Michael said he definitely wants somebody who likes to take walks in the evenings down in the pecan bottoms and Alan chimed in, nodding enthusiastically, “Yeah, you know, somebody that likes to do that, you know--go for walks and stuff.”

Brent didn’t want to be bothered to talk about it, and when I persisted, he said he wanted someone who wouldn’t bother him too much. I took the hint and quit bothering him.

So what I think we’re looking for is a kind, patient, out-doorsy type with a good sense of humor who backs off when requested. We’ve decided that for this house a couple would be considered,  so two kind, patient, out-doorsy types with a good sense of humor might work, too.

Naturally there’s more to the job description, which you can see on the website if you’re curious.

Meanwhile, these four greats guys are having to put up with a different staff person every night of the week, and they deserve better than that. So, spread the word, share this blog, tell your friends.

Michael, Brent, Andrew, and Alan are looking for a new housemate, and the person fitting the bill doesn’t even have to float in on an umbrella, although if that could be arranged it would be highly entertaining.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Little Church That Could

Got a letter from David Hoster, rector of St. George's Episcopal Church in Austin, announcing his retirement in May after 20 years of serving "the little church that could." 

David's been at St. George's just a little longer than Jerry and I have been building Down Home Ranch, and that's no coincidence, because St. George's birthed the Ranch just as surely as I birthed Kelly Page Horton.

Our family was "unchurched," as they say, when Kelly was a toddler.  Jerry and I were juggling and struggling, caring for a small child with a big disability, teenagers, two careers, and ailing, aging mothers.

St. George's was in our neighborhood, and gave us  a meeting room for ADS-UP (Austin Down Syndrome Union of Parents), so we got to know a few of the parishioners.

My mom needed to move to Austin to be closer to us, and we learned St. George's had just completed St. George's Court, affordable housing for elderly of modest means.  Mom became one of the first residents.

There were other meetings and functions we found ourselves attending at St. George's, but it still didn't occur to us to attend services.  We weren't the churchgoing sort.  In fact, Jerry was more the prosyletizing atheist sort.

Then one day I met a man with his little boy in a neighborhood park where I'd taken Kelly to play.  We got to talking and I learned he went to St. George's.  I told him how much our family appreciated St. George's ministries, and he grinned and said we really needed to come some Sunday, but he didn't push it.

A few months later Jerry returned from a conference in Washington, D.C.  The following Sunday morning I was lying on the bed in a pretty deep funk, exhausted from the week's travails, and he said out of nowhere, "Let's go to St. George's this morning and try it out."

I flopped over on my back and stared to make sure a stranger hadn't wandered into my bedroom.  Why not? I thought, beats lying on the bed in a funk.

We walked through the doors with Kelly in tow, and the greeter was the man from the park.  He smiled in recognition, opened his arms wide as if he'd seen us just the day before, and gave me and Kelly a big bear hug.

"Welcome to St. George's!"  Our life was about to change, big time.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Gala is coming! On April 10 the Quebe Sisters Band will entertain at our annual big fundraiser, and the Ranchers are making sure they’ll be able to do that good old Texas swing.

We’ve been having Tuesday night practice sessions with Denise and Don leading the way. I missed the first one, but was there last night and what a hoot!

Our PUSH guys, here for spring break building fences, installing lanterns, building decks, and various other projects, got washed out by the big rains yesterday, so they were still in pretty good shape for dancing.

Wow, enough guy partners to go around and extras to boot. That’s a first!

Denise led folks in the basic steps and got them good and warmed up. Then I took over to teach the Virginia Reel. Been a while, but I found my groove and got a 13-partner line going.  An hour later we were all exhausted!

Jerry and I first learned the reel during Yam Bake days way back when. Rich McMath (see Rick call a contra dance) called the dances and the Double Eagle String Band played under the big tent the Austin Baptist Association lent us every year. After several years of that we finally nailed it, even if we only did get to do it once a year or so.

Yam Bake’s given way to The Ranch RoundUp Golf and Gala Weekend, a bit more upscale and not dependent on the weather, which is a big plus.  (We’ll never forget the innumerable 10-year old boys during Yam Bake ’97 who discovered you could slide a really long way in the red slippery mud if you got a good running start. Parents were variously amused, at least until time to load up the car. We gave out a great number of large plastic trash bags that night as I recall.)

Anyway, we spent another hour working just on the reel. 
The reason the PUSH guys are here to begin with is to perform service projects on behalf of people with intellectual disabilities.  Sounds noble and uplifting, but maybe not so much fun.  Dancing brought us all together--just a happy bunch of equally confused people trying to get it right.  As the evening wore on, we did, and it was magic.

And truth to tell, we're pretty good at creating that.  Come to the Gala and see for yourself.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Spring Is Here!

Woke up this morning at 7:22 but of course it’s the first Monday under Daylight Savings Time so it was really only 6:22, which is the time I normally wake up.

Drat! Now I can’t take my morning walk!

I hate Daylight Savings Time! I’m a morning person. My finest hour is taken away and handed over to the slugabeds of the country, and I don’t appreciate it. But…what can you do? (Besides move to Arizona)

I decide to the take the walk anyway.

When Jerry walks with me we go around the perimeter of the Ranch, which is two miles exactly. But we frequently encounter big wild pigs, and I feel safe with Jerry because, as he says, he’ll protect me by grabbing me and holding me securely between him and the pigs.

So without Jerry I walk the Village Road, which is 1/3 of a mile long. Six laps—two this way, two that way, two more this way. Two miles.

Abi, our little Maltipoo, bravely makes the first round, but on the second defects to Teresa House, where Sandy spoils her outrageously.

I venture on alone. At Gabriel House Mike wanders out onto the porch looking sleepy. We say good morning. I ask if he’s had his coffee this morning. Not yet.

The eastern sky is reddening now. A huge flock of grackles flies overhead nattering and chattering away. I inspect a cedar elm and see tiny leaves starting to appear. At last! It seemed like spring would never come!

My fourth turn around the road I catch a sharp whiff of wild plum, rising up from the pecan bottoms where they flourish. I’ll ask John to take the nature class and go tag them while they’re still in bloom so we can find them later and maybe beat out the forest critters this year and harvest some for jelly.

By now the PUSH guys, sore and sunburned from their first full day of work yesterday, are filtering out to their work sites. The air is still crisp and cool, and the zing! of hammers hitting wood is beginning to sing out. (I wonder what the PUSH guys think of our COM volunteers,  whose age probably averages 70, who do this work all the time and can work the britches off about anybody.)

I stop by my favorite red ant bed, but they’re not up and about yet, so I come on back to Benedict House. The Carolina jasmine has completely outdone itself with blooms, so I take one last picture, slough off my sneakers, set up the coffee, and start the day.

Oh, how I do love spring!

BIG pig photo courtesy of Google Images

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Volunteers: A Migratory Species

The Purple Martins are back! I was worried because we usually start seeing them in February. They arrived this year right along with the Campers on Mission, who are here to help us catch up on projects and oversee a rowdy bunch of frat boys here on a spring break mission.  The first to arrive were Paul and Pat Cude, and Lee and George Singleton.

The COM bunch are old friends and have been volunteering at the Ranch for years. They arrive in their RV rigs, hook up to the water and the electricity, set up their TV dishes, and get right down to work!

This morning the pictures were jumping off the walls in my office in the barn between the restless horses kicking their stalls at the west end  and the COM guys whacking away on the other, installing sliding doors on the east.

I heard the men laughing about our plans for the chicken house, looking at the pile of lumber we had delivered for it. They might think we’re a going a little over the top and building a regular Chicken Hilton, but hey--with 33 people living at the Ranch we need a lot of eggs! The Ranchers and I can’t wait to actually go and pick up our hens and rooster. More chores added to the workday, but ones that they'll love (mostly).

The Pi Kappa Phi guys begin arriving Friday night and Saturday. They’re part of PUSH America. They’ll build fences, a large deck, a chicken run, and other things while here. They’ll get their ritual spring break sunburn, even though we’ll try to convince them to avail themselves of our gallon-size jugs of sun screen.

The Ranchers will take it all in stride, enjoying the hustle and bustle of the week. They’re old friends with the COM folks, and will enjoy spending time with the college guys, too.

And at the end of the week the Ranch we’ll have made a lot of progress. Everyone will settle back into the routine, such as it is, and be thankful for good friends who help Down Home Ranch be what it is.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Rebekah's Smile

Today is Rebekah’s birthday!
We met Rebekah for the first time when she and my daughter Kelly went to church camp together when they were about eight. When Rebekah was 13 she started coming to Ranch Camp and went on to move into Martha House, where she’s lived since 2006.

Rebekah’s the first of the “Crop of ’84”—of which there’s a bunch here at the Ranch, including Kelly—to turn 25 this year.

We have a tradition of serenading the birthday man or woman early in the morning with spirited renditions of "Las Mananitas" and "Happy Birthday to You," sung outside their window, or just inside their door or, as in Rebekah’s case last year, right beside her bed as she hid under the covers.

Our efforts are not always sufficiently appreciated.

So last week when Rebekah asked me, “You sing my birthday?” I asked her, “Do you want me to?”
“No,” she said happily.

I wasn’t sure she meant it, because Rebekah is the most reliably enthusiastic member of the Down Home Ranch community, ready for anything at any time, so when Kelly called last night to remind about the birthday I asked if she thought Rebekah wanted us to sing.

“Of course,” she said.

So in the dark of early morning I showed up on the front porch, guitar clutched in hand, and Rebekah opened the door to welcome me in. We crowded around and sang our songs.

Rebekah looked pleased. She asked, “You sing my other song?” and I knew she was referring to the song I wrote for her last year titled "Rebekah’s Smile." I assured her I’d be by later on to sing that song, too.  And I will, too, just as soon as I come up with a melody for it! 
By then it was time for the girls to eat breakfast, and for all of us to start a new day.  From Martha House I rushed over to the Dock House for our weekly Senior Staff meeting, and frantically made lists of all the things I have to do this day. 

And one of those things is to write a tune for Rebekah. 

How great a job is that!?

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Evidence of Things Unseen...

We had guests this past weekend at the Ranch, the mom and dad of an 11-year old boy with disabilities. They are in the early stages of building a “place like Down Home Ranch” for their son and others like him.

Sound familiar? Does to us! We are contacted all the time (two to three times a week, in fact) by parents dedicated—sometimes desperate—to locking in a good life for their son or daughter as they age.

Jim and Laura’s story is similar yet different from ours. Their boy does not have Downs. Instead he presents a puzzling set of neurological mysteries that don’t settle him easily into any particular category.

Not everything about Jimmy is a mystery, though. His love for the family farm is deep and obvious. Just as obvious is Jim and Laura’s determination to see that Blue Ridge Community Farm gets built and fulfills the dreams promises they hold for it.

So impressed were we by how far this couple has come that we did something we’ve never done before—devoted an entire weekend to spend with them. We needed that and more. I commented to Laura Sunday evening that they must feel like Alsatian geese—you know, the ones they funnel-feed.

So much information, so little time! But of course the mentoring will continue. So easy these days in our seemingly virtual lives!

Most often when someone says to me, “I want to do what you’ve done with Down Home Ranch,” I reply only half-facetiously, “No. Trust me. You don’t.”

I’m only half kidding when I say I don’t really know how Down Home Ranch happened to come into being. Jerry and I regularly wake up, walk outside, and look out on the Village, where the Ranchers are stirring and getting ready for their day, and we look at each other in amazement.

Usually Jerry will say puckishly, “Whose idea was this anyway?”

What a journey it’s been. If we’d had half an idea of how hard it would be we would never have been brave enough to step out in faith and do it. But God graciously led us on day by day. Over the past 20 years so many amazing people have come into our lives, offering the best of what they have and who they are.

Parents, campers, counselors, staff and board members—what a continuous inspiration they have been! And oh, how we have needed that inspiration. It’s been a long, hard, exhilarating, sometimes heartbreaking, journey.

This weekend we saw the Jerry and Judy of 1990 in Jim and Laura—standing on the precipice of a grand adventure—a vision quest to slay the dragons that threaten to devour the ones we love.

And we just know that Blue Ridge Community Farm will someday be a reality, that Jimmy and his friends will care for the animals, gather the eggs, and will know that life is good.

Photo: Laura meets Blossom, first resident of Down Home Ranch

Monday, March 1, 2010

That's My Room!

“That’s mine!”

Saturday morning the excitement of Sterling, Kyle, and John finally drowned out the shouts and calls of the work crews managing the pour for the new house on the block—Isaiah House, where the four guys from Joseph House will move when it’s completed.

They weren’t the only ones excited. Jerry parked himself at the gate early to make sure it would be open for the big concrete trucks to start rumbling through starting at about 8:00 o’clock.

The huge boom arched over the pad like a scorpion to deliver the wet mud. Workers pushed and pulled and smoothed and finished. Our three guys scratched their names in a tiny corner, pointing out to Calvin, their weekend staff buddy, where he would stay when the house was finished.

These guys have been living at Joseph House, on the south Spur part of the Ranch, and have long expressed their desire to live in the Village with everybody else. They’ve feel especially cut off this winter, with the sun going down almost as soon as they get off work. Even on the weekends they’ve had to ask someone to drive them over if they want to visit someone in the Village because of our seemingly endless rain.
So they are pumped at this great beginning! They’re ready to move tomorrow, but we must complete a long journey before Isaiah House is ready for move-in—electrical, plumbing, framing, interior walls, dry wall, windows, doors, finish work, painting, carpet, appliances, and so much more.

But…well begun is half done, as they say, and we’re on our way.