Written by Public Relations Intern Morgan Tuss
Fourteen-year-old Avery* was struggling with suicidal thoughts, depression, anger, and sadness. In desperate need of help, her family decided the best place for her to find hope was 3,000 miles away at Yellowstone Boys and Girls Ranch in Montana.
“I’m a long ways from home,” she said, thinking of her 5,000-person hometown in Alaska.
When Avery first arrived on Yellowstone’s campus, she felt overwhelmed.
“At first it was kind of scary being in a new place. But you get the feeling that people care about you.”
Avery had a warm and cozy treat when she first checked into YBGR. She was able to choose a hand-made quilt to keep her company during her stay at Yellowstone.
“I was actually really surprised,” she said. “I thought, ‘That’s really cool.’”
Avery chose a quilt that is scattered with earthy tones, moose, and trails like the Iditarod.
“When I’m missing home, I can see it and it makes me feel better.”
Avery’s quilt was made with love by three quilters from St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Harlowton, Mont. They make dozens of quilts each year for the youth of Yellowstone.
“Those kids, some of them come with absolutely nothing,” said Sue Fortune, one of the quilters. “It really just tugs at your heart.”
Fortune estimates their quilting group has made more than 1,300 quilts for Yellowstone’s kids since 2005. However, keeping up with the amount of quilts needed for incoming YBGR kids is tough. The group started with 22 volunteers, but now just three ladies participate.
“It takes a lot for the three of us to turn out the quilts we do,” Fortune said.
They also rely on donations for materials from generous church members and others in the community. Fortune said she wouldn’t want a YBGR kid to go without one.
For Avery, receiving a quilt helped her settle into her life at the Ranch and heal from wounds of the past. Starting at age seven, Avery endured abuse. She was then diagnosed with posttraumatic stress, major depressive, and generalized anxiety disorders.
“I thought that I would never want to live or enjoy living.”
But the Ranch has given her life again. She has found purpose with various work crews on campus. She earns money by cleaning dishes and tables in the dining hall. She also works by tagging, branding, feeding, doctoring, and cuddling the Ranch’s calves.
“It’s really fun,” she said.
Her time at the Ranch has changed her.
“I’ve been able to do things for myself and helping myself allowed me to help others,” she said. “It’s gotten better since I’ve been at the Ranch, which I never thought I’d get to say.”
And as for Avery’s quilt, you won’t find it bundled in a corner or strewn on the floor. It is proudly displayed across her bed in the lodge, ready to keep her warm at night.
Please call Sue Fortune at 406-632-4204 if you are interested in quilting with or donating to the volunteers at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church.
*Name changed to protect client confidentiality
The Yellowstone Boys and Girls Ranch board of directors has appointed Mike Chavers as the permanent chief executive officer, effective August 1.
“I am honored to be offered the opportunity to serve as the CEO of Yellowstone Boys and Girls Ranch and to be a part of the incredible history and mission of the agency,” Chavers said. “I look forward to helping YBGR continue to make a positive impact in the lives of youth. As a native of the west, I am grateful for the opportunity to continue my career in an area which I still call home.”
Born and raised in Idaho, Chavers pursued his education and career in Illinois. He has worked at Indian Oaks Academy, Nexus, for the last 22 years. Most recently, he has served as executive director of the organization.
Chavers holds a Master of Arts in Counseling from Olivet Nazarene University and a Bachelor of Arts in Communications from the Moody Bible Institute. He is a fellow at Georgetown University’s Center for Juvenile Justice Reform.
The Yellowstone Boys and Girls Ranch board of directors has elected officers for 2016-2017. The board re-elected Dr. Ronald Sexton as the Chairman. In addition, members elected Chip Youlden as Vice Chairman and Bob Carr as Secretary/Treasurer.
The board renewed the appointments of Sexton and Youlden, along with Stella Ziegler and Dr. Bob Wilmouth. In addition, the board welcomes a new member, Perry McNeese. The slate of nine members also includes Ken Woosley, Bill Goodwin, and YBGR’s chief executive officer.
YBGR’s board members consist of professionals from communities across Montana who volunteer their time to serve Yellowstone. They support YBGR’s employees, who work with children who struggle with controlling emotions and behaviors.
Close to 45 youth at Yellowstone Boys and Girls Ranch are starting their summer break by acting, splashing, sliding, dirt biking, baking, and bouncing throughout campus this week.
“One game the kids will love is called Splatter Ball,” said YBGR Spiritual Life Director John Dailey. “They will toss a whiffle ball filled with shaving cream at one another. That’s one sticky game!”
The activities are a part of a three-day summer camp, hosted by Yellowstone’s spiritual life program and the Young Life organization. The camp aims to connect YBGR youth with Young Life volunteers, who are positive role models for the youth. Young Life, a globally-recognized organization, helps young people grow in their faith.
“The kids get to do things they normally don’t get to do in a controlled and structured setting with adults who care about them,” said Keith Dow, the area director for Billings Young Life.
Dailey and Dow said the kids will eventually wash away the shaving cream, but hopefully not the memories, connections, and hope for the future.
Sifting through used clothing and shoes doesn’t bother members of the Billings Optimist Clubs. In fact, they thrive on it, especially since they’re helping kids.
“It’s a little different project than what we’ve done before,” said Roger Gravgaard, a 10-year member of the Heights Business Optimist Club.
Gravgaard rallied members of the Heights Business Optimist Club, the Big Sky Optimist Club, and the Magic City Optimist Club to clean and sort the clothing rooms at Yellowstone Boys and Girls Ranch. The clubs are a part of a worldwide volunteer organization whose members strive to bring out the best in children, in their communities, and in themselves.
“We are able to provide clothes and shoes to youth in need because of generous donations from community members,” said Gillette Vaira, the director of public relations at YBGR. “Maintaining the clothing rooms can be challenging, but they’re in great condition with the support of our dedicated volunteers.”
“I think everybody has really enjoyed the time out there,” Gravgaard said. “It’s been a really good experience.”
The Billings Police Department teamed up with Yellowstone Boys and Girls Ranch to raise awareness about the active role law enforcement officers play in our community.
“We continually strive to develop positive relationships with the youth of Billings,” said Thomas Keightley, the public relations officer for the Billings Police Department. “This is one way to demonstrate to the kids how much we care about them and their families.”
Officers Keightley and Fishbaugh showed YBGR youth a police car, bullet proof vest, helmet, shield, and handcuffs. The youth also met Kooko with the K9 Unit! The event took place during National Police Week, which recognizes the service, sacrifices, and contributions made by U.S. law enforcement officers.
“Our organization is grateful for the Billings Police Department,” said Gillette Vaira, the director of public relations at YBGR. “This event will not only help our youth better understand the law enforcement community, but it may also open their minds to future career possibilities.”
The Billings Police Department consists of 142 sworn police officers who patrol within the Billings city limits. BPD is committed to improving the quality of life through a customer service, problem solving partnership with the community.
Each year, organizations across the country celebrate National Volunteer Week in April. Let us introduce you to some of the volunteers who come back to the Ranch week after week to help us keep it running smoothly.
Wayne Harsha treks nearly 70 miles roundtrip to volunteer regularly at Yellowstone Boys and Girls Ranch.
“I love coming here. Love it,” he said. “You kind of have to decide what’s important in life. Family is important. Doing something like this is important.”
Wayne has compiled data and statistics for YBGR for more than two years. He learned of the opportunity through his son, Tom Harsha, who is a mental health worker at the Ranch.
“I like to be able to make some contribution to help out,” Wayne said. “I can’t do what Tom does, but if I can take the time to help the Ranch with data to make better decisions, then I can give back.”
Wayne also likes to interact with Yellowstone’s youth whenever possible. Once, he brought flowers to the Ranch, and he, his wife, and Tom planted them with the kids.
“I’m doing it for the kids and so (Tom) can have a better chance to do what he does best,” Wayne said. “I would do it even if he wasn’t here, but it was a connection that brought us together.”
Wayne served as a pilot in the U.S. Air Force from 1968 until 1991. He has worked as a professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University since 1988. He adopted four of his five children, including Tom. Having lived in Japan, Germany, and several states, he now lives with his wife in Columbus.
After raising six kids and now two grand-puppies, you might think sorting clothes would sound dreadful. But Malinda Rickman, a new volunteer to YBGR, spends an evening each week in our clothing room doing just that—sorting clothes.
“After having so many kids, I don’t mind laundry,” she said. “I enjoy the feeling of accomplishment when I can see some of the progress and helping somebody that needs it”.
Malinda previously worked in clothing retail, so sorting the clothing room seemed like an easy way for her to get involved in the community.
“It’s nice to be able to branch out and give back,” she said. “The people I’ve met are just wonderful. I just really enjoy it.”
Malinda has always lived in Billings and owns the Continental Gate Company with her husband. An avid runner, she doesn’t mind running across town to work in the clothing room. With all of her sorting, she said she is at a point where she is starting to “make it pretty.”
Longtime YBGR volunteer Gail Norman has a heart for kids and the people who help them.
“I like what the Ranch does and I feel like maybe I’m contributing a little to that,” she said.
When asked how long she has volunteered at the Ranch campus, she joked, “I was afraid you were going to ask me that.” For about seven years, she has filed for the Fiscal Department and has helped with setting up filing systems. When she has time, she now helps with other clerical tasks and fills in at the reception desk.
“[The staff are] always very appreciative I’m there,” she said. “Everyone is very, very happy to see me. It makes you feel good.”
Gail is usually only able to volunteer at the Ranch with short notice since she also works regularly as a substitute teacher at the Billings Career Center. In her spare time, she also enjoys reading sometimes several novels a week, caring for her acre large yard she jokingly calls “the plantation”, staying healthy, and spending time with her two grown sons and six grand kids.
Anyone who walks into the Garfield Center on a Tuesday has a high chance of running into volunteer Dorothy Jensen. There, she helps with filing, data entry, and as she called it, “odds and ends that help out the staff.” In May, she will be celebrating her third year as a volunteer of YBGR.
“It gives me something to look forward to,” she said. “(The staff) are very welcoming, pleasant, and friendly.”
Dorothy was a registered nurse before she retired. She had enjoyed volunteering in her hometown in Iowa. In 2013, she moved to Billings to be closer to one of her two sons, and she caught the volunteer bug again. She quickly discovered the volunteer opportunity at YBGR through Adult Resource Alliance Center of Yellowstone County. She said she is thankful for the experience because she enjoys being out and meeting new people at YBGR.
“Even though it might seem like a minor thing, it takes a load off of their jobs,” she said. “They’re always really grateful for everything”.
Dorothy enjoys visiting her granddaughter, who is also a nurse. She also appreciates cross stitching, reading, meeting with a weekly quilting group, and volunteering at Adult Resource Alliance.
Judy Watson-Goldsby has always helped children. She raised four daughters and took in three foster care children. Now, she’s impacting youth in another way… by volunteering at Yellowstone.
“I’ve been aware of the Ranch ever since I was in high school,” she said. “I had never really been on campus. Now that I’ve seen how big it is, it’s very impressive. I wasn’t aware of how far-reaching this is and what they do.”
Judy volunteers weekly at Yellowstone by filling in at the administration building reception desk and helping with paperwork. She started in this role in April.
“Somebody got my name and called me and said, ‘Hey, you like to volunteer.’”
Judy is on the Laurel City/County Planning Board, serves as the chairperson for the Laurel Urban Renewal Agency, works as secretary/treasurer of the Laurel Revitalization League, and delivers meals for the Laurel Meals on Wheels program. She said her most significant passion is conducting genealogy research at the Laurel Library. But volunteerism, in general, fuels her.
“It really gives me a reason to get up in the morning to know that I have something to do to keep me busy and make me feel good.”
Having previously worked in the insurance industry, Judy also owned an auto repair shop in Laurel. She retired in 2014.
John’s* 11 months at Yellowstone Boys and Girls Ranch were truly a life-changing experience.
“I am very grateful for Yellowstone Boys and Girls Ranch,” he said. “I probably wouldn’t have been alive if it weren’t for it.”
The 17-year-old traveled to the 410-acre ranch in Montana from his home in Chicago.
“When I came here, I was a complete mess and had more things to work on than I like to admit,” he said. “I had really low self-esteem and a negative perception of who I was as a person.”
He and his family hoped staff at YBGR would help him with depression and bipolar disorder.
“One thing I had hidden from everybody for a while was that I also had a problem with drugs,” he said. “But that secret lasted only a few months.”
Once he opened up about his challenges, John said he began to focus on his treatment. This led to opportunities for him.
“During the summer, the kids in my lodge and I dedicated our time to bucking and stacking hay,” he said. “From this, I learned how labor-intensive farm work is. At the end of the summer, we calculated that we stacked over two tons of hay!”
John’s adventures didn’t stop there. He participated in hiking, fishing, swimming, and billiards, as well.
“All of this sounds like just fun and games, but there is therapeutic value to everything we do here,” he said. “Once I started to become a more social person, I became more physically active, as well. I lost a much-needed 50 pounds from my daily activities, which helped me grow even more confident with myself.”
John said he began to imagine what life could be like after YBGR.
“The guidance counselor at YBGR has helped me tremendously with my future,” he said. “She helped me prepare for both my first and second ACT test, and also helped me decide which colleges to send my scores and apply to.”
Now, back at home in Chicago, John plays the trumpet in his school’s band and has joined the ceramics club. He graduates from high school in June and has aspirations to go to college. No matter where he goes next in life, John said he’ll keep YBGR with him.
“The real me took a lot of hard work and coaxing to come out of his shell, but my team and I accomplished it,” he said.
*Name changed to ensure client’s confidentiality
Michael’s* start in life wasn’t ideal. His 16-year-old mother knew she couldn’t provide for him, so she gave him up for adoption. That’s when Michael’s new parents found him, trying desperately to make up for his rough beginning.
“I was a spoiled little brat. I wanted everything and I got everything I wanted,” he said. “As I got older, money got tighter. Stuff I wanted couldn’t be bought. I guess that’s kind of why I started not listening.”
That’s when the problems arose.
“I was running away. I was doing any drug I could get my hands on,” he said. “(I was) constantly at my girlfriend’s house. I didn’t listen to anyone at all.”
Michael and his girlfriend used methamphetamine, heroin, cocaine, and marijuana.
“(My parents tried to) stop me and save me, but I didn’t want to listen because I was so focused on my next fix.”
Drugs led Michael to dangerous situations.
“I was in a bad drug deal and I had a gun to my head,” he said. “(My parents) always say, ‘If we lose you, that would be the end of us.’ I always think, ‘What if they lost me right then and there?’”
Although Michael knew he was on the wrong path, he couldn’t stop his destructive decisions. One day, he was punching the wall, and his father tried to stop him. That’s when Michael kicked his father in the face.
“I was high on meth,” Michael said. “I felt so bad and I still feel bad about it. I was tearing the family apart.”
Then Michael ran away.
“I was scared of myself because I never thought I would ever hurt my father, ever.”
Soon after, he went to a treatment center. But he ran away from the facility with another resident.
“We ended up in the ghetto of LA,” he said.
They were doing drugs and stealing cars. He remembered hot wiring a black Mercedes-Benz.
“The dude had left his license in there and he looked like me, so I took his license, too,” Michael said. “I drove it for like five blocks and then I got out because it was a stick shift and I really couldn’t drive it.”
Days later, he returned to the treatment center, enraged.
“I started breaking stuff,” he said. “I kicked the door down. I punched a hole through the door and a couple holes through the wall. I hit and hurt so many people and myself. I think I gave myself a concussion (because) I hit my head on the wall so hard.”
Michael was then transferred to another treatment facility. He was becoming accustomed to being locked up.
“I had gotten used to it, almost too used to it. It was scary. It didn’t bother me at all.”
But then, he arrived on the campus of Yellowstone.
“Every time I got tired of a place, I would just try to do something so crazy, so stupid that they wouldn’t want me here,” he said. “But they made me stick it out and this place wouldn’t let me leave. They didn’t send me away. And that’s when I started shaping up, honestly, because I knew they wouldn’t give up on me.”
Michael also knew that after Yellowstone, his next stop would be jail. So he tried to make a home for himself in Fortin Lodge. But his first months at Yellowstone weren’t without struggles.
“I was always on consequence.”
He had chores, writing exercises, workout regimens, and limited privileges. But over time, he started developing relationships with staff and earning their trust. That’s when he began to work with animals, and he even formed a special connection with a horse named “Lina”.
“I honestly love this horse,” he said. “Whenever I got mad, I would talk to her like she was a regular human being. If I’m upset, she’ll lean her head in and give me a big fat hug. If I’m happy, she’ll lean in and give me a big fat hug.”
Soon, Michael was helping Yellowstone’s farm and ranch director, Gary Adams.
“He taught me how to brand and tag. I wanted to do it by myself right away, but he wanted it done right. It took a year before I could brand on my own.”
But his time with Gary wasn’t just about working with cattle.
“He’s also taught me some life lessons. He’s said a lot of wise things,” Michael said. “He pulls me aside after we’re done working and we talk for a little bit, whether it be about God or just how good we did.”
Michael started to become a leader on campus. He mentored younger residents and worked several jobs on campus. He participated in individual, group, and family therapy sessions. After a year and a half at Yellowstone, he feels ready to return home.
“I’m going to tackle my brother when I first see him and give my mom a big hug; my dad, too.”
As a graduate of Yellowstone Academy, Michael plans to move directly toward his career goals. He wants to earn a scholarship to go to a fire academy and then become a fire fighter. Although his goals are set, he said he knows temptations will follow him.
“I’m always going to have problems. The drugs are always going to be there. Old friends are always going to be there,” he said. “What I do and what choices I make are going to determine how I am and the person I’m going to be.”
But he said the lessons he has learned at the Ranch will guide him. And he won’t forget that Yellowstone saved him when he couldn’t save himself.
“It feels so good to know that I can go home and be a sane person and have a normal life.”
*Name changed to protect client’s confidentiality
The Yellowstone Boys and Girls Ranch will be a little brighter, a little louder, and a lot busier on April 10. The Muscle Car Club of Billings and Magic City Street Cars will be displaying about 20 cars and one tow truck for the youth who live on campus.
“We enjoy any opportunity to share our cars with young people,” said Rick Boyce, the vice president of the Muscle Car Club of Billings and president of Magic City Street Cars. “We have a great time visiting with them, too.”
The clubs aren’t only showing off their wheels. Some members feel a direct connection with YBGR’s kids due to their childhood experiences, and they’ll be offering their advice.
“This is an opportunity to help our youth grow and learn about possibilities,” said Gillette Vaira, the director of public relations at YBGR. “We’re thankful that these groups want to share their time and their beautiful cars.”
Yellowstone Boys and Girls Ranch, a nonprofit organization, is trusted locally and nationally as a leader in the field of mental health care for children and their families. YBGR has impacted more than 10,000 youth and their families since 1957 through Residential Services in Billings, Community Based Services throughout Montana, and the Yellowstone Academy in Billings.