Austin, a 15-year-old from somewhere in West Virginia, didn’t know he was giving a testimonial for Chestnut Mountain Ranch last fall.
The ranch is a 225-acre expanse, just off Kingwood Pike near Morgantown, that offers a faith-based refuge for boys and young men in trouble, or fleeing it.
And Austin — the ranch doesn’t divulge last names for confidentiality — was living there at the time due to some of the above, or all of the above.
He liked the fact that he had a safe place to sleep at night.
He liked the school on the grounds, with its certified teachers and accredited course offerings, to help him keep up with his studies.
He really liked that there were adults to give him structure and incentives for good behavior.
“It made a difference,” he said of the lodging. “The people here care. You can earn points for field trips.”
What Austin was experiencing was foster care — and the ranch is expanding in the arena.
Seven months ago, it debuted Chestnut Mountain Village, an outreach ministry centered on foster families, and churches that might want to go in the same direction as Chestnut Mountain Ranch.
“This is for our kids in foster care and for the people who want to open their homes to foster care,” Steve Finn, a former detective who worked with youth gangs in Atlanta before returning to his native West Virginia to found the ranch in 2004.
On May 18, the village component of the ranch is hosting what it calls the “All-In Foster Care Summit,” an all-day series of seminars geared to churches wanting to launch similar ministries.
Jason Johnson, national director of Church Mobilization and Engagement at the Christian Alliance for Orphans, is a featured speaker, along with Lynn Johnson, the former Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families.
WVU head football coach Neal Brown, who often takes his players on mentoring visits to the ranch, will also give remarks at the summit.
May is national Foster Care Month and to date there are more than 400,000 children living in such circumstances across the U.S., including 7,000 or so in West Virginia.
When it works it works, said Greg Clutter, who directs foster care services for Chestnut Mountain Village.
The system, though, he said, doesn’t always work for a multitude of reasons. Sometimes, Clutter said, children are failed by foster care.
That’s where the faith-based direction comes in, he said.
“Throughout the nation, church communities are making foster and kinship care stronger,” the director said.
“Churches and faith-based organizations have developed innovative and effective programs,” he continued.
“The goal of the summit is to bring the movement to West Virginia.”