By Sarah Bellafiore
People were made for community. Research cited through the Karyn Purvis Institute of Child Development shows without healthy relationships, a child’s emotional development declines and can further lead to complex behaviors and mental illness.
Building community is at the heart of the mission at Methodist Children’s Home. The ministry’s programs offer safe, trauma-informed spaces, full of acceptance and God’s love for all served.
“My hope for the children, youth and families we encounter – whether it’s through residential care, Independent Living and Transition Services or Family Outreach – is that they feel a sense of belonging and accomplishment and they achieve things they can be proud of,” said Traci Wagner, vice president for programs. “We can do everything under the sun, but if we’re not equipping our youth for their next chapter and pointing them to the hope that only comes from Jesus, then we’re really missing the mark,” she added.
At MCH, youth come together in community with staff and live out God’s commandment to love one another as He loves them.
“Everyone is welcome across all of our programs,” said Dorothy Phillips, residential services program administrator. “We provide a wide array of opportunities for our youth because we have such a diverse population. They know there is always somewhere or someone to turn to for support. We ensure all of our youth are in a place where they can be comfortable, happy and thriving.”
For some students, that sense of belonging and empowerment comes from bonding on an athletics team or cheer squad. For others, it comes from sharing music in the Spiritual Development (SD) program or riding horses together.
Both the SD and horsemanship programs recently underwent extensive assessments in which program leadership and staff reviewed all aspects of their departments and produced adaptations to ensure authentic accountability.
“The SD and horsemanship programs have been huge parts of MCH for a very long time,” Wagner said. “It would be easy to get stagnated, but our staff are innovative and open to change while adhering to our core values. I’m proud of our teams for not accepting anything less than our very best. Our teams introduce new, creative and fun opportunities that capture the hearts of our students.
As a faith-based organization, MCH continues to provide opportunities for youth and families to grow in their understanding of God’s love and flourish in their talents. With a combined 39 years of service at MCH, the Spiritual Development team is the face of the church for the MCH community.
“It is our hope that everyone we are blessed to interact with understands they have a God who is loving, good and will always sustain them,” said Kim Clark, director of spiritual development. “Hope for the future is a really big gift we can offer our youth. We give our students voice so when they transition to their next phase of life, they know how to find other like-minded communities.”
All MCH students and Independent Living residents have the opportunity to attend Sunday worship services. About 65 residents and Day Students currently participate in SD activities such as handbells, worship choir, praise band, creative arts in worship, worship planning team, voice and piano lessons, guitar class, open mic nights, and fall festivals. A Wednesday night youth group called “Amen” launched this semester, along with weekly in-home Bible studies led by SD ministers and one-on-one meetings with Independent Living residents. While the SD team offer spiritual guidance and support to students and staff, they agree God is at work throughout the entire ministry.
“It absolutely takes all of MCH to create Christian community,” Clark said. “We see tangible examples of the Holy Spirit moving here. For instance, when a youth is in crisis at the charter school or when they can’t go to sleep, other staff support our youth in those moments and help them feel safe.”
Creating and sustaining healthy, positive environments for all is paramount across MCH. Ron Britton, spiritual development minister, said youth looking to become involved in SD activities go through an interview process.
“We expect all our students to maintain and uphold our expectations and values,” Britton said. “We absolutely have zero tolerance for bullying, especially since our youth share intimate parts of themselves while singing or playing an instrument.
“We want our youth to encourage each other,” he said. “They are very good about reinforcing our expectations. It makes them feel secure knowing their peers are there to support them. We understand our youth are not perfect by any means. However, it is our priority to provide a safe place where youth can try, fail, succeed, and grow.”
That support can be seen as students take on leadership positions and work closely with their peers to improve their skills. The SD team recognized these emerging leaders and created the worship planning team in 2018. The team meets once a month to plan worship services, devotionals and rehearsals and organize events alongside the spiritual development ministers.
“The worship planning team is made up of student leaders involved in other activities so they really speak to our bigger MCH population,” said Jill Sims, spiritual development minister. “They have an ear to their peers and we are really good about honoring their suggestions, even if they aren’t traditional.
“We foster discernment by encouraging our students to ask questions, study and find their own faith and voices,” Sims added. “We allow our youth to have their own space and it’s amazing to witness how eager they are to step into leadership roles and new challenges.”
Landen is a 17-year-old senior on the worship planning team. He came to MCH in 2020 and has grown into a confident musician through SD activities.
“I have always loved to perform for people,” he said. “I received my first guitar when I was 7. When I play and sing, I get lost in the music – it grounds me. Being able to make music and perform with others is something special.”
It is special, too, watching Landen teach his peers in guitar class and help others in rehearsals, the SD ministers agree.
“Landen is such an integral and fantastic part of our program,” Britton said. “His communication has improved a lot. He didn’t talk very much when he first came to MCH – now he’s helping me teach guitar class.”
Landen said he loves leading others in praise songs. He has played 68 times during Sunday worship services – and he’s still counting.
“All of those performances helped me learn practice does make perfect,” Landen said. “I know now everything in life requires some sort of training or practice.
“I’m grateful to have this community to practice my musicianship with,” he added. “I have also found my faith here. Before I came to MCH, I was angry with God. I didn’t understand why He put me through the situations in my past. I’m slowly accepting God more into my life with the help of the SD staff and my friends.”
LeRay is a sixth grader who said she has found safe places in SD where she can share her feelings and beliefs.
“There truly are people at MCH who help us with our struggles and goals,” LeRay said. “I’ve been sharing more about my past with others and that’s been freeing.”
LeRay said she loves sharing her talents for God and continues to improve her skills in various activities.
“We are empowered to do what we love here and to try new things,” she said. “I hope to continue sharing my faith and encouraging people through my music.”
Beyond their structured program activities, SD students also grow in their relationships through community outings and events. In recent years, students attended Baylor University choir concerts and performed with Baylor choir members, sang at local churches and nursing homes, performed Christmas carols at various locations, and enjoyed a Christian worship concert in Dallas, Texas.
“Our kids were blown away by that trip,” Sims said. “Experiences like that open up a whole new world to our youth. They learn those kinds of opportunities are accessible and will never forget experiencing them for the first time.”
The SD staff wants every youth to grow in confidence and learn to experience life to the fullest while they’re at MCH.
“We hope each of our students grow to have genuine faith – that they would have something real and sincere to always fall back on no matter where they are,” Britton said. “Each of our youth has inherit worth. We hope they trust they are capable of so much more than they can dream or imagine.”
When driving onto the 500-acre MCH Boys Ranch, eight horses, a donkey and other livestock can often be seen in the first set of buildings, barns and fenced fields. Among those buildings is the PSH Activities Pavilion. The space is used for equestrian, agriculture sciences and recreational activities, as well as occasional outdoor Sunday worship services. The pavilion was a gift from the PSH Foundation and Hand Foundation of Houston and was dedicated on April 8, 2003.
The pavilion is integral to the horsemanship program, initially created and implemented in the early 2000s to provide youth another set of opportunities for healthy connections and life lessons. Like other programs at MCH, the horsemanship program has adapted over the last two decades. Today, students learn the skills of caring for and riding horses under the supervision of trained equestrian professionals who incorporate trauma-informed principles into activities.
All residents and Day Students have the chance to ride horses at the Boys Ranch. The Outdoor Education department recently introduced the Free Rein Equestrian program specifically designed for students looking to further their horsemanship skills. The goal “is to build connection, trust and independence through horsemanship for all participants,” explained Tim Price, director of outdoor education and recreation.
“The program allows students to form respectful relationships with horses as they learn to work with them to achieve team goals, both inside the arena and beyond. We promote skill progression through safe and fun lessons that compassionately remove direct support and drive independence, mastery and advancement.”
Price and Claire Edwards, outdoor education coordinator, bring decades of experience as they lead youth, families and community partners in horsemanship activities at MCH. Edwards was specifically tasked with creating the Free Rein Equestrian program where students advance their skills in grooming and riding horses. Each participant is ranked on a four-tier skill level system. According to program leadership and staff, the ultimate hope is for students to ride and show horses in competitions.
“Our horsemanship program really fits well with the mission of MCH,” Edwards said. “Working with horses teaches people a lot of valuable skills like communicating with a 1,200-pound animal that does not speak our language. They learn about leadership and teamwork with their horses.”
Beyond the individual rider-and-horse dynamic, staff said Free Rein continues to build a community “where youth find a place to belong.”
“Our students are pushed outside of their comfort zones during lessons,” Price said. “Those shared experiences grow their confidence and comradery. We help our youth develop interpersonal skills through horsemanship and those same skills can be applied to create healthy, connected relationships with people.”
Edwards said a large part of Free Rein lessons comes down to teaching riders about advocacy and empathy.
“Our students are more likely to be patient and empathetic toward horses than they are to themselves,” Edwards said. “They love to find their own stories in the horses they work with. Our animals are always going to meet our youth with unconditional love and acceptance.
“It was our goal to create a program with those same values that our students can call theirs,” she said. “In learning to connect and advocate for their horses, our students in turn begin to show themselves more grace, self-love and self-respect.”
Virginia, called Ginny by her friends, is a humble leader in Free Rein. The 16-year-old junior joined the horsemanship program with previous experience, having trained in the rodeo world. Those environments tend to be harsher, Edwards explained.
“I definitely saw that negative self-talk in Ginny,” Edwards said. “She is more compassionate toward herself now and is more flexible. As one of my student workers, Ginny helps encourage other riders and is starting to trust herself, her knowledge and her abilities more.”
That includes setting an example for her peers, as well. “It’s really nerve-wracking sometimes because I know it’s really important to set an example,” Virginia admitted. “I’ve never had anyone look up to me. I have always been the one looking up to others.”
Tony, a 15-year-old freshman, is one of the students taking advice from Virginia.
“I still can’t believe I can actually ride horses,” he said. “I have definitely grown in my skills since the first time I got on a horse here. Free Rein has helped me become a better brother, too. We have to be patient with the horses and I’ve learned to extend that patience to my younger siblings.”
MCH staff concur that offering life-changing experiences to children, youth and families, and to community partners at no cost is priceless.
“I love we are able to offer people their firsts in life, like riding a horse,” Price said. “We give our kids the ability to be kids and participate in things they otherwise may not have been able to do. The skills and memories our students gain will stay with them for the rest of their lives.”
Like Spiritual Development, the Free Rein Equestrian program enjoys group outings and events that further students’ overall growth and education. The team attended the Bluebonnet Challenge in Taylor, Texas, where dozens of riders across the state competed in horsemanship events. MCH students said they bonded over the trip that inspired them to become better horsemen.
“I have found another home and community in Free Rein,” Virginia said. “I’m looking forward to what our team builds together.” •