School paper, Lions Roar
Eighth grader Justin Strauser was used to selfishness, to men who hit him and to teachers who didn’t believe in him. So when he arrived at the Ben Richey’s Boys Ranch in Albany, a home for at-risk teenage boys, he was only expecting more of the same, and not the new family and life he got.
Justin was born in Arkansas to a father who was imprisoned for drugs and a mother who would often work two jobs to support him and his older sister Jodi. Justin met his father for the first time when he was five years old under a court order that allowed Justin and Jodi to visit their father’s new house and wife shortly after he was released from prison. On his third visit, Justin’s father beat him. That was the last time Justin saw his father.
“He never hit my sister, it was just me,” Justin said.
After he told his mother about his visit with his now abusive father, he and his sister were soon moved to Texas to live in Merkel with their grandparents. Weeks before their departure, Justin’s father often drove by their house making death threats to Justin and his family. Justin’s mother stayed behind in Arkansas to pay off a local church that had been helping the family pay their bills, but soon followed her children to Texas.
“I love my mom. She’s the only one who has always been there for me,” Justin said. “When I saw her pull up in my grandparent’s drive way, it was the best feeling in the world.”
While the mutual love remained the same, the relationship between mother and son started to change.
“She drank sometimes, and had a lot of boyfriends,” Justin said. “I love my mom and I always will, but after years of not having a father you begin to feel a lot of hate and start hating every man you see. We began to fight a lot.”
Justin’s mother, Ami Israel, worked two shifts at the Abilene State School to support Justin and his sister. In the mean time, Justin let his anger towards his father bubble up and over flow onto his attitude towards school.
“The doctors said I had ADHD and put me on pills for it, but I really just didn’t want to do the work. I didn’t care,” Justin said.
Israel was still working and struggling as a single parent, and leaned on her sister and mother for help raising her two children. But Justin’s behavior was so out of control that he was not allowed at her mother’s house or sister’s. Israel couldn’t rid herself of the feeling that she was abandoning her child, but she knew something had to change.
“Even when he was little I threatened him with boot camp. The doctors agreed with me too, he was so out of control the only thing that could save him was extreme discipline,” Israel said.
Justin had earned a reputation at is previous school as a “bad kid” and was paying multiple visits to the office for behavior problems. Things got so bad that Justin's mother, at age 10, told him it was either boot camp or the Ben Richey’s Boys Ranch.
Justin began living at the boys ranch in Abilene and enrolled in Madison Middle School. It took a few months for Israel to see a change in her son, but it was there. The visits to the school office became weekly instead of daily, and his interaction with people was improving. But Justin wasn’t happy.
“I think living in a big town was really hard for him to adjust to,” Justin’s grandmother, Linda Coffin said. “He had grown up in a small town environment, and that’s what he needed to get back on his feet.”
One of Justin’s house parents suggested that he move to the Albany campus because of the football program and small town environment Justin had grown up with.
During math class one day, an office aid walked into Justin’s class and asked for him. That’s when he saw his house parent out in the hall waiting for him, and when he knew he was leaving for Albany.
When he got to the house to pack his belongings, he saw a tall sturdy man with a handle bar mustache and glasses waiting for him in the foyer. After packing his belongings into dozens of trash bags and accidently throwing his “good clothes” bag away due to nerves, he found this man to be his new house parent, Mike Bean.
A dustry truck ride later, Justin entered his new home knowing four of the eight boys from previous interactions with the Albany ranch. The atmosphere at Albany’s ranch was much different to Justin, as it was too many of the boys at first. It was more like a big family than he had expected.
“Everything in Albany is different. The teachers are nice and treat me like I am any other kid,” Justin said. “We’re not bad kids at the ranch. Some are just less fortunate than others. It’s nice to actually be treated that way.”
The goals set by the Ben Richey’s Boys Ranch are to learn boundaries, respect, ethics, and how to work hard and keep a household. The boys have daily chores and are taught to say yes ma’m and no ma’m and to call men sir.
“When I first came here and I would do something wrong, I faced punishment and was put to work-I wasn’t used to that,” sophomore Brandon Luckey said. Luckey has been living at the ranch for almost two years. “Now I can see the pro’s and con’s of every decision I make before I make it and avoid punishment.”
Justin missed his family, but like the boys home in Abilene, holidays were dedicated to spending time with the family. Each year on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, the Albany ranch hosts a Thanksgiving feast prepared by Pam and the boys for the boys and their families held at the First Baptist Church. After the feast, the boys go home when their families for the holiday if possible. In the past, many of the boys who have graduated high school have come back to share Thanksgiving with their Ben Richey family.
“These people are my family, so I came back this year for thanksgiving,” Andy Henson, a 2008 Albany graduate said. Henson now runs track for Abilene Christian University and is majoring in Environmental Science. “I wouldn’t be where I am, or who I am, without the ranch.”
Coffin, who accompanied Justin’s mother to the Ben Richey Thanksgiving dinner, says that like Henson, Justin wouldn’t be where he is today without the ranch.
“Before Ben Richey, Justin was so high strung he didn’t know that he was scaring people with his behavior,” Coffin said. “Since being here he’s turned into a real gentleman. We’re very proud of him.”
The annual Thanksgiving dinner in November gives parents like Justin’s a chance to witness the change their boys have undergone.
“I used to send Justin to his room and not let him out until he cleaned it, and four hours would go by and he’d still be sitting there, screaming away,” Israel said as she watched her son wash dishes while other boys scurried around the First Baptist kitchen cleaning up after the meal. “And now to see him cleaning? That’s crazy.”
Ben Richey Boys Ranch President Kerry Fortune feels that the small-town environment Albany offers plays a big role in the success of the ranch.
“Pam and Mike have created a great environment in their home,” Fortune said. “The community has such a warm and caring heart for the kids, not just the Ranch’s kids, but all of them. Coupled together, it allows for success and growth for the boys.”
Each Christmas the community donates generously to provide presents for the boys. Along with fundraisers held by the ranch, the presents are provided by groups like the sherrifs department and the Albany Chest. Each boy gets $50 to buy a present for their families back home, and one present for a family in need in Albany.
“I feel ten times better having Christmas here. We are just as much a family as anyone else,” Luckey said. “Christmas last year was probably the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”
Even with the holidays and weekend visits, it’s still hard for Israel to be away from her son.
“Even now I just want to take him home with me,” Israel said. “But I know that that’s selfish and that he’s doing too well for me to take him home. I love my son, and I want what's best for him, and right now that’s Ben Richey’s.”