Hard Work as a Catalyst for Change: Teens Learn Lessons From Life on the Ranch

By Meghan Vivo

It’s a common theme in movies and the media: A rebellious teen who is brimming with anger and entitlement skips school, experiments with drugs and alcohol, and gets escorted home by the city police. Exasperated parents get fed up and send their wild child to an aunt, uncle, or grandparent’s ranch to learn respect, honor, integrity, and service through good, old-fashioned hard work.

While some families are fortunate enough to have a family member who lives on a ranch or farm and is willing and able to take on an unruly teen, many families are left with a variety of less desirable alternatives. That is, until parents discover Turn-About Ranch, a truly unique and life-changing residential treatment center for adolescents ages 13 to 17 who are struggling with defiance, depression, substance abuse, personality disorders, and other behavioral and emotional issues.

Located in Escalante, Utah, Turn-About Ranch is a real working horse and cattle ranch that offers young people the opportunity to get an up-close look at the real-life benefits of living and working on a ranch. Unlike many adolescent residential treatment centers, Turn-About students learn the value of hard work, honesty, teamwork, and cooperation through hands-on experience, while at the same time receiving intensive individual and group therapy and attending school.

A Day in the Life
The day at Turn-About Ranch begins early in the morning with breakfast, morning chores, and an activity that may include school, a group hike, a horsemanship lesson, or a work project. Work projects may include chopping wood, building a new fence or enclosure, bucking hay, or feeding and cleaning up after the pigs, sheep, horses, and cows. After lunch, the kids may be asked to do any number of other ranch chores like cleaning the kitchen, hauling wood, or milking cows.

“Here at the ranch, we do real life stuff,” says Myron Carter, barn program director at Turn-About. “It’s real living on a real ranch with real things that need to get done. The kids have to be responsible or the ranch, the animals, and everyone else will suffer.”

Hard work and the sense of purpose that are integral to ranch life are only one small part of what makes Turn-About Ranch so effective with troubled teens. But hard work is a great way to capture a young person’s attention and ignite the process of change.

“All of our students are searching for a sense of identity,” explains Carter. “Rather than identifying with material things, sex, or other things, they learn to identify themselves through hard work and the cowboy way of life.”

Serving a Greater Purpose
According to Dayna Rust, LMFT, the clinical director at Turn-About, there are a lot of young people who don’t know the value of hard work, and are being robbed of the sense of pride, accomplishment, and confidence that goes along with setting and reaching goals.

“Some of our students tell us they would sit and watch TV while they texted their demands for food, drinks, or entertainment to their parents in the other room,” she says. “By mid-way through the program, most of these kids are sincerely embarrassed and ashamed of how they used to act, and have begun to see themselves as strong, capable young adults.”

Hard work gives adolescents a sense of success and self-mastery, and the pride of contributing to a larger purpose – in this case, the functioning of the ranch. There are roughly 40 students, dozens of animals, and a team of caring staff that depend on the contribution of each student.

“Because this is a working ranch, there’s always something to do,” explains Dave Treanor, program supervisor at Turn-About. “If a student feels sick one day, we all feel it. That fact requires the kids to become part of something bigger than themselves and shows them that they are needed and appreciated. The amazing part is that the kids actually want to give back. They want to take on new projects and take ownership for their work.”

A Strong Sense of Personal Accomplishment
Although an outsider would speculate that ranch chores and work projects would be one of the most dreaded aspects of the day, if you speak with any one of the students you’ll learn that the hard work is actually a welcome part of the program.

“To me, bucking hay seems like a miserable job – the bails are heavy, it’s hot outside, and you get really dirty – but it’s one of the kids’ favorite things to do,” says Rust. “At the end of the day, they can look at the stacks of bales, and even though they’re tired and sore, there’s tangible evidence of what they’ve accomplished. They feel strong mentally and physically, and are empowered to make changes in other areas of their lives.”

Part of the appeal of the ranch chores and work projects is that the students see immediate results, says Carter. Young people thrive when they receive prompt feedback and an immediate feeling of accomplishment and importance.

“There’s something about the cowboy life – responsibility, hard work, accomplishment,” states Carter. “It seems to me that with a lot of things today, kids don’t see immediate results. Here, they’re tired, they sleep well, and they can look back on their day and see what they’ve done.”

One student explained why the ranch chores are a favorite pastime among Turn-About students: “I really like bucking hay,” he said. “It takes a lot of time and commitment, but it builds companionship between me and the guys. When you see another student giving it their all, that’s the way you build respect. It has shown me how to find the right friends in the right places.”

Another young man expressed the frustration he felt during his first weeks living at the barn. “When I first got here, I couldn’t believe my parents did this to me. I couldn’t even pick up a bale of hay,” he said. “Now I’m getting in shape, and I actually like being here. I’ve changed so much – I’m motivated and confident and can’t wait to graduate high school and move on to college.”

This student went from scared to do anything to one of the barn’s top leaders, says Carter. Halfway through the program, the young man started competing to get the last bale of hay, and even “bale-jacked” some of Carter’s workload because he wanted to prove to himself that he could complete the task.

A Parent’s Pride
When students realize how good it feels to contribute to a greater purpose, they begin to reconsider the role they’ve played in their family system at home, explains Rust. Mid-way through the program, students’ parents visit the ranch and have the opportunity to see and experience ranch life for themselves. The kids beam with pride when they walk their parents around and show them the new fence they built or the pile of wood they helped chop, or teach their parents how to rope a cow or mount a horse.

“I never got along with my dad at all,” said one student. “But when he came for mid-term, I got to show him everything I’ve learned – using a bow drill, roping, and all. He couldn’t believe the stuff I was doing. He was so proud.”

Joining the Ranch Family
The staff at Turn-About Ranch are committed to helping young people, and work hard to create a team mentality. Rather than adopting an “us against them” approach or commanding the students to do the work, the staff serves as role models who work alongside the students in every aspect of daily life.

Many staff members have worked at the ranch for 10 to 20 years, and though some try to relocate to different parts of the country, they always come back, says Rust. Although she began her career determined to work in outpatient treatment, Rust says she sees more changes in one month at Turn-About than she did in an entire year in outpatient therapy.

“I came to work at Turn-About because the program is so different from any others,” she explains. “There are other really great programs out there, but there are resources here that can’t be replicated anywhere else. Every part of ranch life is therapy, so the kids are learning and growing 24 hours a day, rather than once a week in hourly therapy. When I see these kinds of changes, why go anywhere else?”

Even in some of the most successful residential facilities, students are happy to return home and never step foot near the program again. But not at Turn-About – the students come back to volunteer, visit, and work at the program year after year.

“I’ve never worked at another program where the kids actually want to come back. Even the kids who struggle here want to return,” says Luke Hatch, LCSW, the executive director of Turn-About Ranch, who himself was raised on a ranch and feels passionately about the benefits of the ranch lifestyle. “Both the parents and students feel very connected to us, and continue to maintain a relationship with us long after they leave.”

A Show of True Devotion
For many parents, the decision to send their child to a therapeutic boarding school or residential treatment center is a difficult one. But at Turn-About Ranch, parents begin to see changes in their child’s attitude, confidence, and core values, and feel proud of their decision to get help. One frustrated mom shared the story of the day she brought her daughter to Turn-About:

“My daughter was constantly getting drunk, and she was about to be sent to juvy. One day, she swallowed a bunch of pills and was rushed to the ER. I needed help and knew it, but no one would help me. The officer that brought her home one night told me she just made a mistake and needed to sleep it off. I lost it and screamed at him because no one seemed to understand what it felt like to have their daughter smoking, swearing, and disappearing for days at a time. I did some research, drove her from Texas to Utah to Turn-About having never seen it except online, and got her the help she needed. I said to her, ‘If I didn’t love you, I’d take you home, let you sleep it off, follow the cop’s advice, and let you go.’ I didn’t have the money, but I knew immediately that Turn-About was the right place for her.”

After 58 days in the program – the approximate halfway point – this mom’s Dallas teen vowed to come back to work at Turn-About when she’s older because “This is where everything happens. This is where change starts. I can only take off from here.”