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Wednesday, Oct. 1, 2014

Arrowhead Ranch thrives, grows

Friday, June 24, 2011

Houseparent Josh Leverette plays table tennis with Andre, a resident at the Arrowhead ranch.
(T-G Photo by Mary Reeves) [Order this photo]
About a year ago, there were only a few boys living at the Arrowhead Ranch at 239 Cortner Mill Road near Normandy -- a good start for the home for boys, but not good enough for executive director Jeff Sweeney.

Six months ago, there were seven boys, all between the ages of 10 and 17.

Today there are 14 -- with several more on the waiting list.

Boys are required to stay at least one year at the ranch, but are welcome as long as they need to. The ranch provides a home for boys whose parents or guardians are having a difficult time and need assistance. It is not a state-run foster agency and the boys are recommended through churches, schools and counselors.
(T-G Photo by Mary Reeves)
"We had to build a new house," said Jeff.

The ranch has been a dream of his and his father Preston's for years now -- a place where boys could grow into young men, boys whose parents had either died or were having a hard time and wanted something better for their children.

New reality

The dream has become a reality and it just keeps getting better.

"We ought to have a reality show out here," Jeff joked. Then, after thinking about the created drama so many of those shows have, he changed his mind. "We don't do drama out here."

What they do, however, is work with each boy individually, building his self-confidence, improving his study habits, and establishing a work ethic that most children would benefit from and will never receive.

"We have to work in the morning," said Andre, one of the teens living there. "We string fence, bring the cattle in, work with the horses."

"In the morning," corrected Ben, another resident teenager. "In the afternoon, we get to play."

That play can mean anything for limited video games to table tennis, working in the weight room, or, now that they have enough boys, playing full-court basketball.

"I dominate," said Ben. "Only when I'm not playing," said another boy.

Family matters

They come from all sorts of backgrounds, impoverished and wealthy, black and white, but the 14 (all teenagers now that the youngest has had his 13th birthday) learn quickly to work as a unit -- and to become a family. They elbow each other, tease and joke, work hard and play harder, all under the careful supervision of their house parent and other ranch staff members.

They take a extensive course in horsemanship, taken from the pages of the 4-H program, before they are allowed to ride out on the ranch, and they are each "given" a calf to help raise. The calves are later sold at market and the boys keep some of the proceeds for any kind of post-secondary education they want, from college to trade school.

With the addition of a new residence, there are new houseparents, including Charlie and Cindy Pope and Josh and Tammy Leverette. Josh, a Shelbyville police officer, will be leaving his position there to take up his Arrowhead duties full time. It was not a decision he and his wife made lightly.

"I said no," Josh said. "Tammy said no. And then we prayed about it." The Leverettes visited the ranch several times, getting to know the kids and what it would be like working and living with them. Even before they have officially became house parents, they were on-site, helping with school work or taking them places.

Charlie Pope resigned as Cascade High boys basketball coach earlier this month to join Arrowhead. He will remain on the faculty.

"I feel like this is what the Lord is calling us to do, and you can't really argue with that," Pope said.

Supportive neighbors

More than two years ago, when the Sweeneys first proposed their plan, there was some residence from their Normandy neighbors, who thought it would be a home for juvenile delinquents.

"We take Level I kids," said Sweeney in an earlier interview. "The kids may have been abused, abandoned or neglected by their parents, or their parents are just unable to care for them at this time."

But, he added, the children can't have a history of abusive behavior themselves, or any history of sexual predation, playing with fire, or other severe emotional or psychological issues that could threaten the welfare of the other children. Sweeney lives on the grounds himself with his wife and their young children, and he understands the need for all of the kids to feel safe and protected.

Since then, there has been a definite change in local attitude. One set of neighbors even brought Jeff a chocolate pie recently. "They heard it was my favorite," he said.

Other neighbors volunteers often help out when they can, such as Warren Patterson of Tullahoma who comes out to teach the boys fly fishing and how to make their own dry flies.

"When he drives up, the boys get excited because they know they're getting to go fishing," said Sweeney.

Cascade School has been especially helpful in getting the boys settled -- and welcomed -- in the community, he said. "We could not succeed as we have without their help."

Big dreams

In the future, Jeff sees the ranch being home to 30 or 40 boys, and he hopes to have a charter school in place by then, to spare Cascade from overcrowding and the additional stress of his charges.

At least four of the boys play on the high school football team. One junior just scored 27 on his ACT, and Ryan, another resident, was recently inducted into the National Honor Society.

"We've been really blessed," said Jeff.

It's a blessing that he wants the boys to understand and appreciate, which is why civic responsibility is one of the things the ranch emphasizes. After the recent storms, his crew of kids was out there, clearing debris away from homes where the residents were unable to do it themselves. One day, as the boys were being driven back to the ranch, they saw an elderly gentleman chopping wood. The teenagers made the driver stop, got out and finished the job for the man, including stacking up all of the wood.

Another misconception there has been about the ranch -- a 501(c)3 not-for-profit organization, is the cost. There isn't any. Some parents who can pay will send money, but donations, fundraisers and corporate sponsorships cover the costs. The recent 5K Race for the Ranch brought in more than 100 runners and raised money, as did the golf tournament and spaghetti supper that will both be returning in September.

Make a difference

There are many ways to help Arrowhead Ranch listed on the website, http://www.arrowheadranchtn.org . The revamped site also gives a virtual tour of the ranch and more information.