There are many attributes that make Cal Farley’s Boys Ranch unique among our industry peers. Two of the most notable are our focus on neurological development and our commitment to maintaining a Christ-centered environment.
Did you know, though, that these two seemingly unrelated qualities actually work together to accomplish great things for our youth? One of the conduits to that work is the close-knit community at Boys Ranch known as The Iona Project.
The Iona Project is a special program that, among other things, connects a chapel intern to each of our Boys Ranch homes. That man or woman spends time building a strong relationship with the boys or girls in that home, providing a godly example for them to follow and facilitating healthy and often pointed discussions about a loving God Who allows such pain in His world. Where other mentors must balance modeling godly love with daily life — the laundry must go on, after all — our chapel staff has the singular focus to live out the gospel with and for Boys Ranch youth.
“Instead of approaching ministry as promoters or salesmen, the Iona community embraces Christ’s ‘neighbor’ approach,” explained Senior Chaplain Mike Wilhelm.
Just as so many young people come to Cal Farley’s Boys Ranch emotionally or academically underdeveloped, their spiritual lives are often in similar disarray. A child who’s been raised with an unhealthy view of faith in God is ill-equipped as an adult to make sound choices about his or her belief system.
At Boys Ranch, our chapel staff understands the impact this has on our children’s view of God. They work hand-in-hand with our childcare experts to create an environment of love and acceptance that permeates the entire Boys Ranch community.
A child at Boys Ranch finds he or she is accepted for who they are, regardless of how they feel about God at the time. He or she sees our staff strive to live out the love of God on a daily basis. As such, they come to realize they can be honest with themselves and others about their pain and their questions. Asking why God would allow the hardships they’ve endured or expressing anger to God about a deep loss brings no condemnation here.
Beyond that groundwork, however, Cal Farley’s Boys Ranch provides people to walk beside our youth in their spiritual journey. There are, of course, chaplains who lead Sunday morning worship services and provide sounding boards for deep discussions about life. But, many of our youth say it’s the men and women of The Iona Project whose daily presence makes the most immediate difference in their lives.
“I love Annie,” said Justice, 14, of Annabelle Mainey, a Chapel Immersion Program specialist at Boys Ranch who spends a lot of one-on-one time with the girls. “She’s so nice. She comes to our devotionals … She will come by the house and pick me up to go for a walk. She spends time helping me know how much I am loved.”
For her part, Caitlyn Colbert, one of these Iona Project mentors, said ministering at a place like Boys Ranch presents its own unique opportunities and challenges.
“Youth ministry can be playful; play creates space for trust. This is something you can’t always dive right into, it takes time — baby steps,” she said. “I have no desire to win them over, I want them to know that they are listened to, respected, worthy, loved, protected. If they can’t receive these things from adults, how could they even begin to fathom the Father’s love for them?
“Meet them where they are,” she continued. “Love them as they are.”
When they aren’t spending time with our young people, Iona Project interns devote an intense amount of time to spiritual study, instruction and prayer. It’s a process that not only helps them prepare to help our youth, but also sees them grow closer to God in their own daily lives.
“The program is formed very intentionally around set times of prayer, reading Scripture and then going out and playing basketball with the kids, going to their track meets, one-act play events, playing board games with them, just living Christ-filled lives with the kids,” Wilhelm said. “They’re full of Christ’s love, and they’re going to love the kids with that. And, the kids have been impacted by their authentic love.”