A Zachary home for troubled youths that initially faced fierce opposition from neighbors began taking in boys in August, marking a new chapter for a program its director believes is desperately needed in the area.
The Heritage Ranch Christian Children’s Home is designed to serve children between the ages of 8 and 18 who suffer from anxiety, depression and other mild to moderate behavioral disorders. The ultimate goal is to reunite children with their families by helping them work out their problems in a disciplined environment.
“When they’re coming here, it’s because things have gotten to the point that their parents have tried everything else,” said Vicki Ellis, executive director of Heritage Ranch. “These are families that really love and care about their kids. … They recognize they’re not going to be successful if they don’t deal with what’s going on.”
Ellis has ambitious plans for the ranch where five boys between the ages of 11 and 15 now live in a house overseen by a couple who serve as house parents. Eventually, Ellis hopes to expand, adding 10 houses that would serve 60 boys and girls, and to ramp up her seven-member staff to 40 or 50 employees who would live in three additional on-site houses.
Although Heritage Ranch officially has been open for just a few months, the effort to get to that point began more than a decade ago.
Ellis incorporated the ranch as a nonprofit in 2004, seeking to fill a void of residential care programs in south Louisiana. She purchased the 52-acre ranch, which is about a 10-minute drive down La. 64 from Zachary’s center, from a family in 2010 and requested the East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council rezone it as a planned use development, which would allow the nonresidential project.
Rezoning the Tucker Road site, however, pitted neighbors who feared for their safety against supporters who believed Ellis’ program would offer much-needed services that would benefit the entire parish.
Many Zachary residents opposed the rezoning because they felt a large group home was being pushed on them by influential Baton Rougeans, said Trae Welch, the Metro Council member who represents the area. They worried it would lower property values and endanger their community, he said.
Heritage Ranch says it accepts youth with only mild to moderate problems such as anxiety, depression, anger and academic deficits. Applicants go through a detailed screening process, and those with histories of violent behavior are not admitted, Ellis said.
“There was a lot of incorrect information,” said Princeton Bardwell, chairman of the Heritage Ranch board of advisers and owner of Bardwell Development. “We were basically characterized as a home for juvenile delinquents. You take that and put it in a rural neighborhood and you’ve got a firestorm.”
Residents also were upset that most proponents were outsiders — business people and community leaders from Baton Rouge — but Bardwell said their support was an indication of the project’s necessity.
“This children’s home is for the region,” he said. “The only way that can happen is for the people who have the vision for the region and the resources to support it. If that came from Baton Rouge primarily, that’s because that’s where the bulk of the energy and resources came from. But we make every effort to make Zachary our host community.”
Welch, who voted against the zoning change that ultimately was approved 8-3, said he hasn’t heard any recent complaints from residents, but he noted that could be because there weren’t any children living at the ranch until just a few months ago.
“The jury’s still out on whether this is actually going to be what was promised and that they’re going to be good neighbors, or is this what the neighbors feared to begin with,” Welch said.
Ellis, however, said there has been an outpouring of support from the community.
After the rezoning, she delivered cookies to neighbors, many of whom invited her inside to learn more about Heritage Ranch.
One neighbor now bush hogs the ranch property in exchange for being able to keep his livestock on the land.
Supporters say Heritage Ranch will be a positive force in the community as it grows.
“There’s a need in this area for a service like this,” said Jeff Plauche, chairman of the ranch’s board of directors and vice president of Boh Brothers Construction. “It’s not a foster home, and it’s not a detention center.”
It could take as long as 30 years to fully realize the vision for Heritage Ranch, Ellis said. She wants to build two houses every five years, but the pace will depend on fundraising.
Between 2010 and March 2015, Ellis raised nearly $2 million to launch her program. Fundraising events, including galas and golf tournaments, have been held regularly since 2010.
The nonprofit children’s home uses fundraising events to come up with its annual $470,000 budget, which includes a scholarship fund to help families who cannot afford the $1,000 monthly tuition.
The children have weekly individual counseling sessions plus a session with their parents before they go home every other weekend. They attend nearby public schools, and tutors help them with homework in the afternoons.
Ellis said she’s already seeing progress in the boys who have lived there since August. In a video posted online, a relative of one of the children says he now calls the other boys “his brothers.”
The rural setting has proven ideal for solving the types of problems that Heritage Ranch clients face, Ellis said. They can relieve stress by riding bikes, fishing in a pond or petting the two horses kept in the sprawling fields.
“The opportunities for them to learn how to process things in this natural environment is really huge,” Ellis said. “They need this space, but they also need to have the structure.”