The notion of summer camp quickly faded into the background. Prior to coming, Joseph had been on six medications. He was misdiagnosed as having intermittent explosive disorder. Joseph’s violent outbursts had been happening with greater frequency. At the Ranch, Joseph was adjusting to life without medication, and the sadness and anger resurfaced.
Despite this, Joseph’s tender nature and care for others was made apparent at the Agony Ride, where he manned his post faithfully at the Beckwourth SAG, never missing a bike that came into the station. A month later, Joseph persevered through the 15-day backpacking trip in Tahoe National Forest and even jumped off a 40 ft dam with his teammates.
Through it all, Joseph was hearing the Gospel message and watching it lived out every day through his interns. But life had embittered him, and he continued to resist.
“I kept toughening up against them, constantly doing my own thing, punching concrete, trees, plywood….”
In November, Joseph was standing in the Ranch living room, surrounded by the people he had spent the last four months with, faced with the consequences of his decisions. He was to be suspended from the program for two weeks. As Joseph looked around the circle, his face wet with tears, he saw his own grief mirrored in the faces of his peers, of his interns, of the staff.
Levi’s first day at Christian Encounter was the last day of a family trip with his parents and sister, Lily. They had flown from Georgia and had some time to explore the area together before dropping Levi off. Just the day before, Levi and Lily had the opportunity to meet their paternal grandparents for the first time. Their biological father had passed away in 2013. Making this connection would hopefully give Levi and Lily an opportunity to ask hard questions.
As a child, Levi struggled to integrate into the social and academic environment of public school. A heavier kid, he was often targeted on the playground. As he moved into middle school, things didn’t get easier, and he began to take an offensive stance, initiating fights on the blacktop. To gain acceptance, he would starve himself to try to lose weight.
As he transitioned into high school, Levi was introduced to vaping and began dabbling in other forms of drugs and alcohol. Levi would meet up with friends to skate near a vape and smoke shop where things quickly escalated.
Levi’s choices began to impact his siblings, as much as he tried to hide his addictions from his family. He had dropped out of school and had been asked to keep his distance from his church community for a time. He had broken trust with his own family and his spiritual family. He was in counseling, but he needed more support. Levi had been living with his maternal grandparents when his dad set up a time for Levi to meet near his home in Atlanta with two former students from Christian Encounter. They shared about the opportunity the Ranch had given them.
When Levi arrived, he felt the weight and sadness of the separation from his family. He felt like the bad apple that was being thrown out. But this time he was hundreds of miles away from home, where he couldn’t cause any more damage.
Levi had an initial honeymoon phase at the Ranch that ended quickly when he started to feel walled in by the rules and structure. He saw the interns as rulekeepers and gatekeepers, and everywhere he turned he was boxed in. Consequently, Levi’s behavior resulted in him being suspended from the program twice in his first five months.
In between these disciplinary measures Levi experienced the Agony Ride. He got to serve with the staff and interns and help those who were there to help him. He was able to give back, to serve. He felt alive that weekend. At the end of the summer, he embarked on the annual 15-day backpacking trip. Upon his return, there was a noticeable shift in his attitude and demeanor. Out on the trails and on top of mountains, Levi’s heart and mind roamed free. His relationships deepened, and for the first time he realized that the interns weren’t the bad guys.
James and interns David and Alec with Levi on the backpacking trip.
“I’ve been given this chance to fix the things I’ve done. I’ve grown in ways I wouldn’t have been able to outside of here because of the environment I was in.
“When I got here I didn’t want anything to do with God because I was mad at Him. (Interns) Alec and David were great examples of God’s love and showed me a lot of who God is.”
As Levi began to bring things to God in prayer, he began witnessing little things that were undeniably the work of His hand. He saw the Lord provide for him through a Ranch church member buying flights for his sister Lily to come visit him for Thanksgiving - something he had longed for but thought was impossible.
Levi has continued to build on the newfound relationship with his paternal grandparents, grateful to have the support of family nearby. He is on track to graduate high school here in June and complete the program.
“Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” Joshua 1:9
Melanie describes the weeks leading up to arriving at Christian Encounter, “I was really disconnected from the world. I would spend all day at the house… A lot of the time I would have panic attacks at home when I was by myself. I got a service dog and that helped a lot. But the panic attacks didn’t fully stop, they just slowed down.”
Melanie had been attending court hearings and meetings with CPS. In this process, it was recommended that Melanie seek therapy in a residential type setting. She had completed her sophomore year at Forest Lake Christian School, but upon this recommendation, decided to transfer to Christian Encounter where she could continue to work toward her high school diploma.
Melanie arrived at the Ranch with the sole intent of finishing her junior year. Melanie had been exposed to different types of spirituality throughout her life and was leery of a Christian program offering her any kind of actual help. In fact, she was intent on proving that the Christian lifestyle “didn’t work.”
Each new student is paired with a discipler upon arrival, and for the first time, Melanie met someone who had walked through similar life experiences, someone who could empathize with her. In those first few months, Melanie wrote a song and started learning the guitar. When her Bible class introduced her to the book of Ecclesiastes, Melanie resonated deeply with the writer’s cry, “Everything is meaningless!” Although Melanie had walked in Christian circles, she had never actually read the Bible until now. Naturally inquisitive, Melanie began engaging more deeply with scripture.
“Growing up with the religious experiences I had, I felt that God was out to get me…. In a lot of my experiences, I just barely skimmed death…. I watched a lot of people in my life deteriorate.”
As the year progressed, Melanie began experiencing God in deeply personal ways, reckoning with His intimate knowledge and care for her interests and desires.
At the Agony Ride in July, Melanie saw an entire community of people come together to help teens they had never met. On the wilderness backpacking trip in August, when Melanie had sustained an ankle injury, she witnessed her own community sacrifice on her behalf.
“Is He a God of love or a God of punishment?” The evidence for the former was growing.
Melanie stayed at Christian Encounter beyond her initially projected timeline, completing her senior year of high school, earning straight A’s in her final quarter. Melanie is the first to graduate high school in her family. She finished the program in December and plans to pursue a path in forensic biology.
It’s been a long time coming to get where I am today. Everyone says high school is supposed to be the best four years of your life. I think we have this idea in our heads that our high school experience is supposed to look like this wild exciting adventure. My high school experience was not at all what I pictured it would be. In the spring of my sophomore year Covid hit, so we had an early summer that year. In my junior year we only had online classes. Personally, school became more difficult. I ended up dropping out of high school. I was so far behind on credits even before Covid that there was no way I was going to graduate. I honestly didn’t see myself capable of getting a GED.
If it weren’t for the Ranch, I would not be up here today. I want to thank the teachers as well as the interns for loving me, supporting me, and not giving up on me. The Ranch has not only helped me school-wise, but it’s helped me grow closer to Christ as well as learn to love, what a genuine friendship looks like, and how to speak up for myself. Thank you for pushing me.
When he finished his service with the fire department at 16, he felt lost. “I felt like I had no control over anything I wanted in life. I gave up hope in those things and that caused a lot of pain. My family wasn’t in the most stable condition, and it was hard to look around and see others who had more stable families.” Timmy closed himself off to those around him, and his mother felt like she had lost her son. When Timmy arrived at Christian Encounter, he kept to himself. One of the interns reminded him of one of his cousins, which helped Timmy want to stay. The next several months were tumultuous as he struggled internally. Timmy was at war with himself.
“I felt like I had no control over anything I wanted in life.
“I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” (Romans 7:15) The verses in Romans 7 encapsulated his thought processes perfectly. But he couldn’t see the way out. Seven months into his stay, he was faced with a decision. The previous night his thoughts came closing in on him again, and this time, he gave in to his natural instinct - he ran. Once he was located, he was brought back to the Ranch. The next day he was given a choice: to stay or to leave prematurely. He made his decision, and a one-way ticket was purchased. Even as seeds of hope and truth were bearing fruit over the past months, anger still lingered. “I blamed Him for a lot of stuff. I felt abandoned by everyone, including God.” But as these painful memories resurfaced this time, God spoke to his child: “I didn’t leave you. I was still there.”