CHESTNUT MOUNTAIN — Eddie Staub couldn’t fully picture it at the time, but need drives vision.
Crouched inside an aging cattle barn in fall 1983, exposed to the bugs and brisk weather and seeing his own breath, Staub spoke politely into the phone.
With four sacks of concrete for a desk, he scribbled numbers and names — potential donors.
Southern Bell had agreed to run a line into the barn, and other than the voice on the other end and his dog, Connor, he was alone out there in the woods of the Chestnut Mountain community in southern Hall County.
Out across 180 acres of overgrown pasture and woods, he couldn’t yet picture the homes that would be built as the years ticked by. The land they would flood, creating a 10-acre lake, which would be stocked with game fish. The impact on thousands of lives, instilling in young minds the notion that God loves them, and there’s a future full of hope, no matter what they’re going through.
Staub had some ideas about what he wanted to see on the soon-to-be site of Eagle Ranch, but it would take time.
There was a need; he knew that much.
The vision started taking shape 30 years ago when the first child, Scott, moved into what would come to be known as the Faith Home.
Like so many future residents of Eagle Ranch, Scott was having problems at home and school. His story would align with many others who would stay there over the next three decades.
Today, Eagle Ranch houses 42 boys and 22 girls on 270 acres of land that features, in addition to residences, a chapel, multipurpose gym, school, general store, equine therapy center and a lodge in which boys, girls and their house parents dine and watch movies together.
The typical young person at Eagle Ranch comes for a stint of about 18 months to two years.
“The overarching theme is that things at home just can’t be resolved,” said Staub, founder and director of the not-for-profit Christian organization. “It’s chronically not getting better. Our goal is to reunite these children back home.”
Stefanie Long, director of communications, said before children come to stay at Eagle Ranch “their families have already tried traditional means of correction. They’ve gone to counselors, tried to work with their schools. They realize something’s got to happen.”
Staub said about half of the children who stay are raised by single moms, and about 20 percent are raised by grandparents.
“We try to get kids on the front end of going down a difficult road, one that’s not going to be easy to correct,” Staub said. “If you wait too long, it’s hard to get that child back.”
With more than 50 full-time staff members, employees of Eagle Ranch aim to “teach the ability to communicate in a healthy way,” Long said.
“A lot of times, [the children] are feeling a certain way, and they’ll take it out with anger,” she said. “That’s a big part of what we do, as well as strengthening relationships within a family and rebuilding confidence if they’ve slid academically.”
Time leads to results
Jacob, a 15-year-old from Gwinnett County, said living and going to school at Eagle Ranch has indeed helped him get on the right path.
“I was held back in kindergarten, and in my sixth-grade year I got into it with one of the teachers and walked out and never came back,” Jacob said.
Now thriving academically, he attributes the success to “having a more close-up kind of experience with the teachers. They’re more helpful here. They’re able to spend more time with me if I need help.”
Since coming to Eagle Ranch a year ago, Jacob has worked his way back on track to graduate on time, despite earlier setbacks.
“It’s going to be a lot easier going back home,” he said. “I got a lot more confidence in myself.”
That’s the end goal, Staub said.
“We strive to meet them in the different areas of life: emotional, spiritual, academic,” he said. “When a child comes here, there are gaps in all those areas. We don’t really hone in one. We try to look at the total child.”
Nikki and Brannon Craig said Eagle Ranch’s approach works. The Kennesaw couple’s son, Tyler, 13, recently graduated from the program.
“It’s been life-changing,” Nikki said, adding that Tyler was at Eagle Ranch for more than two years. “It brought peace and unity into our home. It was a blessing.”
‘Need drives vision’
Trisha Dittmeier said being able to help children like Tyler is also a blessing.
She and Tony Dittmeier were Eagle Ranch’s very first house parents who would oversee about six to seven boys at a time inside the Faith Home.
Living there from 1985-88, Trisha said, was “one of the hardest things we ever did, but also one of the most rewarding.”
She learned that helping the boys who stayed in the home was a matter of “showing them love.”
The Dittmeiers were there when Eagle Ranch was exclusively a home for boys. Staub and staff decided to start also housing girls there in 2001.
“We have a saying here that need drives vision,” he said. “Places that had girls in northeast Georgia were closing down all of a sudden, and so the community came to us and said, ‘Would you consider a girls program as well?’
“At the time, we didn’t want to have a co-ed campus, but the more we thought about it, we knew that the need should drive the vision.”
As he looks toward the coming years at Eagle Ranch, Staub tends to favor that maxim as the organization continues to evolve.
At the heart of Eagle Ranch’s mission, Staub said, “We’re giving [kids] a picture of a positive future.
“Children come here, and they’ve got these emotions of hopelessness, anger, depression and confusion. The danger is that these emotions become their identity, and as a result, it can become their destiny.
“What we do is, we come into their lives and try to encourage them that there’s greatness in each and every one of them, and that God has a hope and a future for them. A good plan for their lives.”