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Ranch for Challenged Kids

HopeWell Ranch, northwest of Mt. Pleasant, offers emotionally challenged kids, and other children, a place to connect with horses, learn about relationships, and build self-esteem.
It is clear upon your first conversation with Jodi Stuber that she doesn't consider herself or her husband, Ty Stuber, in charge of matters at HopeWell Ranch on Leiter Road in Weidman. Maybe it's all those "We've been blessed with's….", or those "Have a blessed day's …"
Whatever the reason, it is clear to parents and children at the ranch, which uses horses to help physically, mentally, or emotionally challenged children make connections and help build self-esteem.
"They consider themselves humble servants," says Lisa Schwartz, whose five children--Aydn, 10; Josiah, 8; Tobin, 7; Addeson, 5; and Ezra, 4--all utilize the one-hour free lessons and sessions with horses. "But they sure are helping to give out an awful lot of blessings themselves."
Jodi Stuber says about 85 percent of her clients are autistic children, and the rest is made up of kids who have emotional challenges of some sort.  She also makes room for the siblings of the challenged children, because she doesn't want to create a "jealousy" at home.
"Often the challenged kids do the acting up at home and then it seems like they're getting rewarded for it by getting to go horseback riding," Stuber says. "That's the last thing we want to see, so we include the whole family."
When Stuber says the whole family, she means it. There is a Parents to Parents (P2P) Support Group to discuss their own challenges, and parents are called on to volunteer at fund-raisers, and to do various jobs around the ranch.
She says horses are a natural conduit for communication because they don't judge the children. The kids get free one-hour riding lessons, and it is all based on community donations.
"The kids we see, the world often puts labels on these kids," she says. "But horses don't do that. They accept the kids unconditionally. You wouldn't believe improvements I've seen in some of the children who come to the ranch. In communication, skills, self-esteem. It's just an amazing blessing to be able to be part of something so special."
The ranch is funded completely through donations, and its three biggest fund-raisers are a farm fair in June, where there are displays, vendors, raffles and various games; a fall benefit dinner auction where items like gift packages, resort packages, and dinners with local celebrities are auctioned off; and an event called Yesterday's Prom, where women and their daughters make an evening of it, dressing formally and holding various raffles, and making fancy desserts.
"It's amazing how fast the ranch has grown," Stuber says. "We started with three horses and 12 kids in 2004 and received not-for-profit status in 2006.  We now have 21 horses, and have given free one-hour lessons to more than 2,500 kids."
All of the horses are "rescued" from negative situations, and more than 300 horses have been offered to the ranch in the past four years.
"People do that because they know the horses will be going to a good atmosphere, have good homes," Stuber says.
Besides the free lessons, an eye-popping number of visitors see the ranch annually. Stuber says more than 2,500 each year come to visit 18 full-size horses, two miniature horses, and a donkey named Bubba Jack whom Stuber calls "the rock star of the bunch." 
Visitors also interact with goats, chickens, ducks, rabbits, cats and three good-sized dogs. They get a behind-the-scenes look at what it takes to keep a ranch going, and the interest level is enormous.
Visitors are drawn from groups such as library programs, school groups, church groups, civic organizations, 4-H, Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts and other tours and fund-raising activities.
The visiting children indeed are a large part of the ranch's activities, but the more important part is the average of 50 students per week in summer months that receive free one-hour riding instruction courses. The ranch offers the free, therapeutic horsemanship program for children who are physically, mentally or emotionally challenged.
HopeWell staff works with the entire family, offering support to parents, guardians and siblings. Services are more limited during the winter month and school year, but there is an off-site Christmas party, on-site arts and crafts, and the ability to ride on mild days.
That ability will be enhanced greatly by a development that Stuber calls "nothing short of a miracle." The Stubers, using $152,000 in donations, purchased a recycled steel indoor arena and are in the process of putting it up. It will be 100 feet by 200 feet. The building was torn down in Blissfield, trucked to HopeWell Ranch, and is in the process of being put up. Local builder Rob Krutzer is donating his time, which, of course, saves the Stubers a good deal of money. But there still is money that needs to be raised.
"We'll need approximately $135,000," Stuber says. "I know that's a lot of money, but with the help of this great community, I have faith we can do it."
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