By Marita Tolentino-Combs
From Lincoln Electric Magazine; March 2007
A respite stop off the bumpy road of life for troubled adopted East European children lies nestled on the slopes of the Whitefish Mountain Range several miles north of Eureka. The Ranch For Kids is a last resort for these children when they and their new American parents – having exhausted such traditional methods as therapy, medication and hospitalization – remain unable to cope with cultural differences.
This remarkable ranch provides a brief retreat for Russian-American children where they learn how to rebuild the bridge between themselves and their adoptive parents so that they may return home.
Fifteen such children live on the ranch at present, mentored and supervised by adults. Heading the ranch is project founder Joyce Sterkel-Sutley, a nurse and midwife who delivered almost all of the 67 Amish babies born between 1981 and 1986 in the surrounding area.
Joyce is especially keen on Russian children as a result of her experience working in a Russian maternity hospital about 250 miles east of Moscow from 1992 to 1994.
“It was the experience of a lifetime,” Joyce testifies. She witnessed first-hand one result of the fall of the Soviet Union on Dec. 25, 1990: too many orphans. “I felt I had to do something when I looked into the big eyes of abandoned children, crib after crib, in these large orphanages.”
Upon returning to the United States in 1994, Joyce created Global Adoption Services in Wyoming to facilitate the adoption process that involves social services, welfare organizations, American parents and Russian orphans. She and her husband Harry adopted Russian orphans three times: a IO-year old girl and two 14-year old boys, all of whom are living successful adult lives on their own today.
It was a natural progression for Joyce to create Ranch For Kids five years after founding Global Adoption Services. She understands Russian culture, she knows the distrust and unresponsiveness learned by Russian orphans and she fully grasps the cultural clash experienced by adopted Russian children when they move into an American family on foreign soil.
The Ranch children walk to the built-by-kids school house 10 attend an alterative program of the Eureka Public School system. Schoolteachers are Harry, who is also a trained nurse, son Bill and Bill’s Russian wife Elena, a gifted violinist.
Paths lead to the garden and greenhouse where the children grow and harvest the food they prepare and eat. Each child participates in typical chores such as cooking, cleaning and laundering. The well-rounded flexible programs encourage individual growth. House parents Delbert and Loretta Headings nurture and guide the children day to day.
Trails from the ranch lead children on horseback to the surrounding Kootenai National Forest. Large indoor and outdoor arenas allow them to ride year round. The Sutleys’ daughter Angela and her husband, Bobby Pecora, three-time Montana circuit finals saddle bronc champion, manage the equine facility and Pecora Horse Training, which specializes in reined cow horses and a breeding program.
Kids learn to love and respect the horses that patiently carry them through relationship-building activities such as grooming, feeding and watering.
Many of the adopted kids return to the homes of their adoptive American parents after they understand basic social skills and learn how to apply them day-to-day.
Unfortunately, a few have been relinquished by their parents while at the ranch. In these rare cases, the kids continue to stay at the ranch gaining more skills they need to become socially responsible and responsive adults.
If the Sutleys are unable to find them a permanent home by the time they graduate from high school, they typically enter vocation training for a livelihood at Montana Job Corp. which has campuses at Trapper Creek and Anaconda.
Life is a challenge for everyone. The Ranch For Kids provides troubled East European adopted children a place to step off the roller coaster of their shattered young lives and learn what makes bonds of trust possible, what builds hope instead of despair, what instills courage instead of fear, and what engenders compassion rather than heartlessness. Nothing is more important in human development and, ultimately, human relations.
Author manages multimedia production company Applied Vision Media