The great outdoors
Candlelight Ranch: Bringing the outdoors to those who need it most
The first thing you will notice while visiting Candlelight Ranch — after the awe-inspiring landscape of course — are the smiles, there are lots of smiles — everywhere — and they are contagious.
One young woman visiting from a regional shelter for abused girls seemed especially troubled when she arrived. Quietly she was strapped into the zipline harness and quietly she took off. When she reached the other side, she smiled from ear to ear. It was the first time any of her care-givers had seen her smile.
Candlelight Ranch is about creating smiles and memories that not only last forever, but evoke change. The kids who visit this 100 acre Hill Country retreat on the north shore of Lake Travis are most often not the sort of kids you might meet while hiking Enchanted Rock or kayaking the Frio.
"To come out into the natural environment is just a very comforting, they find serenity and peace."
"Many of the kids we have, have never seen the lake, have never been on a ranch," explains Executive Director Harriett Kirsh Pozen. "It exposes them to this whole pristine natural world. They learn about ecology, they learn about taking care of the planet."
And they learn it while having fun — outside — riding ziplines, traversing a canyon (the largest public canyon traverse in the country), sleeping in a huge tree house that sits in a 100 year-old oak tree, caring for horses or simply lying on the ground looking up at the stars.
"One of the most important things is that there’s something called nature deficit disorder. The way that a lot of our children live now — they’re watching TV, on their phones or video games, or whatever, says Pozen. "To come out into the natural environment is just a very comforting, they find serenity and peace."
Put most simply, Candlelight Ranch is a non-profit organization serving children with special needs or who may be at risk in their neighborhood environment. The ranch helps kids enjoy a natural world they might not otherwise experience. Of course they learn to appreciate and respect the natural world, they learn to protect the environment, but they learn something far more important about themselves. "It is incredibly powerful for children to build self-confidence and self-esteem."
The Ranch opened in 1999 as a labor of love. Don Barr, his wife Jeri, and his brother Randy bought the land with a vision of creating a retreat to serve children. Last year they served nearly 1,000 children and another 340 adults. And they did it with an army of volunteers. With the exception of Pozen, Program Director Bridget Shrum and Operations Coordinator Karen Farnsworth, everyone is a volunteer.
Over the years the ranch has partnered with hundreds of organizations all of which have specific needs and interests. "Most camps have a format — when you come this is what you do," explains Pozen. "We work with an incredibly diverse population and so we tailor to every group that comes out."
"If they can have a sense of self-esteem and they can feel confident, then they can deal with some of the challenges in their daily lives."
Groups as diverse as the Texas School for the Deaf, The Theater Action Project, High School ROTC's or the Austin Children's Shelter. "Everything we do is collaborative. We help them enhance their programs. Sometimes we’re a carrot. If the kids do well, they get to go to Candlelight Ranch."
And they do go. That 1300 people served last year reflects an increase of 68 percent over 2010. No, the Ranch did not enjoy an equal 68 percent increase in funding or volunteers. The main fundraiser for the organization is the annual Dress by Candlelight fashion, food and shopping event. But this year Candlelight Ranch is adding their first fundraising campaign to go along with it.
"In order to meet the needs of the children, we need more zipline equipment, we need more helmets. Our budget has increased some from our wonderful supporters and we need to find another way to be able to expand, because the needs are expanding."
Serving children costs money, no surprise there. And as the Hill Country, Lake Travis in particular, becomes more and more developed, the opportunities for regular kids to see and appreciate the beauty around us, let alone those with special needs, is shrinking. Candlelight Ranch makes that beauty available. It's a space as big as Texas and as beautiful as any in the world. To appreciate it, you must let it wash over you, and that experience changes you.
"We know we change lives and that's what keeps our staff and volunteers going," says Pozen. "Most of our kids leave saying it’s been the best day of their lives. If they can have a sense of self-esteem and they can feel confident, then they can deal with some of the challenges in their daily lives."