Monday, October 25, 2010

Coram Deo

During staff meeting Friday Jerry said we'd cut it short because of a multitude of volunteers expected to arrive at any minute.
He asked Mr. Pat to tell the rest of the staff about the 85 or so fifth-graders we expected from Regent School of Austin. 

To my surprise, Pat lit up like a Christmas tree.

"Oh!," he said, "this is about the fifth year in a row they've come out.  I thought we'd wind up babysitting the first year, but those kids can work!  We love it when they come out."

Everyone dispersed to their sites to welcome the volunteers and get them going.  Soon there were groups working everywhere--around the foundation of Joseph House, behind Benedict, in the woods surrounding the camp grounds, and in the community garden  helping to prepare the ground for the next garden beds.

I looked out my office window and thought: That's a passle of 10-year olds! 

I grabbed my camera and went to the garden to investigate.  Moms, Dads, and teachers were all working with the kids, along with Michael, Matt, and their team leader Naomi, raking, busting clods, asking what we planned to plant when it was ready.

From there I went to the Village.  The children were levelling a huge pile of dirt left from the excavation for the foundation for the new Joseph House and carrying it by the shovel  full to pack it in around the slab.

But there was a problem: dozens of frogs and toads had buried themselves in the soft dirt and the kids didn't know what to do with them.  I suggested a relocation shelter near the Benedict garden and hoped the transition wouldn't prove too hard on our amphibious friends.

Wherever I went kids were working amazingly hard, amid scratchy vines, lifting heavy loads, dragging tree limbs long distances.  No whining, no grumping, no sass, no attitude but curious and respectful at all times. 

A few hours later everyone had lunch and Jerry gave them a talk about Down Home Ranch.  After that they piled into vans and headed back to school.

When Jerry came home that evening he said in wonder, "I couldn't believe the questions those kids asked me after my talk.  They were amazing.  They really listened to what I said. 

"I asked if anybody knew how many chromosomes we have in our bodies.  A mom said 23 and a student corrected her by saying it was 23 pair.  Then one asked me why the doctors couldn't somehow take out the extra chromosome that causes Down syndrome.

"I said I didn't know, but that they were working on figuring out what to do and that I wouldn't be surprised if it wasn't one of them that did it someday.  And I wouldn't."

Later, intrigued, I went on the school's web site and learned that Regent School was begun with 17 students in 1992, the same year Down Home Ranch was starting to get underway.  Today there are over 800 students K-12. 

The school's motto is Coram Deo, which translates roughly as "in the presence of God,"  a reminder that wherever we go, whatever we do, whenever it is, we do well to remember that there is a Witness.

And I have a suspicion that Witness is well pleased with Regent School.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Monica and David...

Sterling, Kelly, Kyle & Alaina after screening of Monica & David
...and Kyle and Alaina and Kelly and Sterling and Kara and Clyde and...

Thursday was the debut of the HBO documentary telling the story of two young adults who fell in love and got married. 

What's the big deal?  Happens every day, doesn't it?

Not when the bride and groom both have Down syndrome. 

So our living room was packed with Ranchers wanting to see Monica and David the moment it came on the air.  Their interest ranged from simple curiosity to a desperate desire to do the same.

Though still rare, marriage between people with intellectual disabilities is becoming more common.  Parents and professionals are realizing the unfairness of standing in the way of people who may be handicapped in many ways, but not when it comes to forging bonds of love.

Some might even say that's a specialty of people with Down syndrome.

And what better qualification is there?  I once heard a good marriage defined as being "a union of two good forgivers." It reminded me that when our priest was preaching on the need to forgive 70 times seven, Jerry and I agreed that Kelly was the only person in our family capable of doing that.

We focus on the peripheral stuff: Can they cook? Can they keep a clean house? Can they manage their money?

Could you when you first got married?  I could barely boil water.

The central issue has got to be this: Can they love over the long haul?

From where I sit, I'd have to give that one an unequivocal yes.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Unless the Lord build the house...

The "New" Joseph House
 As one of the top builders in the world, Habitat for Humanity knows a thing or two about building houses--the most important being that if the people who are going to live in it help build it they will live in it with greater dignity and appreciation.

Why should people with intellectual disabilities be any different?  Well, they aren't, as these pictures show.

Kyle & Sterling insulating their new home
Kyle and Sterling are just two of a number of Ranchers who've signed up to help finish out Joseph House, where Kyle, Sterling, Travis, and John will move as soon as it's ready. 

Sterling learns to do the job right
Joseph House, like all the houses in the Village at the Ranch, has been built thus far through the goodness and generosity of other people--people who donate a little bit each month, people who created humongous foundations to benefit others, a family with no relation to the Ranch who decided to donate enough money to finance the entire outer construction.  Plus of course the army of volunteers who help just out of the goodness of their hearts.

A few years ago Jerry and I read a book called God Is the Good We Do, by UT professor of architecture Michael Benedikt.  The book is long and learned (and in very small type) but the gist is this: wherever there are people doing good, there is God.

I interpret this theory by imagining the written score of a symphony.  Is that the symphony?  How could it be?

No, the symphony exists only while the orchestra is playing it. 

Maybe it's the same with God.  God is good and good is God. 

People with good hearts didn't just give money to build a house.  They also gave money to provide an opportunity for Sterling and Kyle to learn important skills and help build their own home.

And we are thankful indeed.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Knockin' 'Em Down

What a week!  Sunday: board meeting from 1:00-6:00 PM. Monday:getting in the hay and the blessing of the animals on  St. Francis' Day.

Then Tuesday was the great semi-annual Staff-Rancher bowling tournament.  What a hoot!  The trash talk had gotten pretty bad over the previous week, and we were each determined to do our best for our team.

So we caravaned over to Chestnut Square Family Entertainment Center in Bastrop and pretty much took over the bowling alley.

Some of our staff seem to have been pretty good bowlers in their day.  Alas, those days are over.
The Ranchers, on the other hand, began bowling in grade school and haven't stopped since.  Which is to say, they whupped us and they whupped us good.
After bowling, we went off to the park for pizza and play in the cool autumn evening.  Sterling, with high schore of the day of 145, was elected to receive the trophy on behalf of the Ranchers. 

Check out pictures from our day below.

Julia rejects Jerry's offer of a crying towel

John models the martial arts release

Sterling and away we go!

Andrew in a pensive moment

Brian ready to roll

Kara is serious

Charles explains his technique

Park on the Colorado River

Alaina & Kyle at the park

Kristen, Crystal & Naomi swing

Sterling accepts trophy on behalf of Ranchers

Sterling & John celebrate their win

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

With St. Francis in the Fields

Rejoicing in the beauty of the world

Yesterday afternoon Fr. John Williams, aka Rebekah's dad, came out to the Ranch for our annual Blessing of the Animals.

People were pretty tired from haying in the morning, but a good contingent trooped off in seach of those creatures great and small for whom Down Home Ranch is also home.  Given the current abundance of said creatures, Fr. John suggested that we select a few "stations" from which to bless, since tracking each one of them down was not practical, and in some cases unwise (such as Peggy Sue, the Longhorn, who holds some sort of bovine grudge against me).

And so we set out from the Pavilion towards  the Village, where Missy, Barny, Abi, and Lady all reside.

Barny gets a blessing
Missy the yellow Labrador is off in Texarkana with Anita, mistress of Martha House, so we went on to our first stop at Barnabas House, where little Barny lives.  He was excited to see us, and happy enough to be blessed, but what he really wanted was to go for a walk, so I suggested we put him on a leash and bring him along.

"Maybe not a good idea," said Michael, who is one of Barny's four owners, and proprieter of a huge aquarium housing a multitude of fish.  I quickly deferred to his opinion.
Michael's new fish tank

After that we headed to Teresa House, home of Abi and Lady.  Abi is enthralled with attention from anyone but a veterinarian, so she was delighted to sit in Fr. John's lap and receive her blessing.  Lady watched amiably from a distance.

Next stop was "the new" Joseph House, which Sterling, John, Kyle, and Travis are hoping to move into sometime in the next few months.  Fr. John asked each person to name the home in the Village where they lived or would live, and asked God's blessing on our homes. 

I was touched to see Kelly reach out to put her hand on Joseph House as it received its blessing. 

From there it was to the top of the haying field, the highest point on the Ranch.

Fr. John explained that St. Francis was considered strange by his contemporaries, because he so loved creation that he would stand in a field and dance, holding up his arms and spinning around.  He urged us all never to worry about what other people say about us, but like St. Francis, to rejoice in the beauty of the world.

From the hill, the horses, donkeys, cows, foxes, fish, turtles, armadillos, skunks, racoons, wild pigs and all other creatures on the Ranch received their blessing. 

Natalie moves manure from the barn to the compost pile
"And bless all the horse poop, too," Kyle said earnestly, which elicited a few disapproving murmurs, but I knew Kyle was remembering what we'd told him about how the horse manure he collects and takes to the compost piles enriches and gives back to the earth.

Later on in the afternoon Jerry popped into my office and said, "I've got to run to Bloomer's and pick up some winter veggie packets.  Be back in an hour."

As I left my office, I saw him digging in the garden and went over to investigate.  He'd bought brussels sprounts and broccoli, pansies and peas and was planting them in the beds.  Our adolescent rooster was practicing crowing (pretty funny at this stage) and the evening sun slanted across the newly mown hay field.

In that moment, I knew exactly what St. Francis had been getting at.

Of the Making of Hay

Community gathering in the hay crop

Last week the hay crew came and cut our hay. 

We were glad because we'd been trying to get it cut for weeks, but we're such small potatoes nobody is really enthusiastic about bringing out all that big equipment to work on our measly 20 acres.

But fortune smiled, the weather stayed dry, the temperature dropped, the hay got cut and windrowed, and there it was: 470 beautiful square bales sitting in the pasture ready to be loaded onto the trailers and taken into the hay barns.

Andrew exults in the beautiful morning air

This morning  I saw Keith grab a stray bale lying in the road.  He tossed it through the air into the bed of the pickup as easily as I would a bed pillow. 

"Wow!" I marveled, and mentioned it to Annette, who said with a wry smile, "Let's see how far he's tossing them at lunchtime."

Our terrific crew
 There was no dew this morning, so we got an early start.  Natalie, Crystal, Alaina, and Rebekah volunteered to help, as did Sterling, Travis, Andrew, Alan, Michael, and Kyle. 

The usual staff suspects showed up: Brian, Mr. Pat, Charles, Keith,  Jerry, Mr. Lobo, and Phil.

The truck and trailer started rolling, and our troops got underway with a whoop and a holler.  Brian stacked the bales as they were thrown onto the trailer.  Energy was high.  Some of the Ranchers worked in pairs to move the 50-pound bales but others managed on their own.

Natalie & Crystal load a bale
The whooping and hollering quickly ebbed away, as oxygen was required for other purposes.  The workers settled into a rhythm.  Soon it was time to move to the hay barn to off-load the bales and stack them in the barn.
Loading the trailer with 50-lb. bales

By this time the novelty was wearing thin.  It was harder moving the bales into the barn and everyone was beginning to tire.

At one point Travis said, "I don't think I want to be a cowboy anymore."

Then it was back to the fields, and so it went throughout the morning.

I couldn't believe how hard our guys and gals worked, with no complaints or slacking.  They are proud that our horses and cows now have a winter's worth of food put away, and they helped make it happen.

And Travis decided he does still want to be a cowboy after all.

Charles & Keith take a well-deserved rest