Abuse, a Scripture, and a Horse Named Hope
Some of Bryan’s earliest childhood memories are ones of an evil, duplicitous family “friend” regularly sexually abusing him until he was in the third grade. Then, thankfully, Bryan and his mother moved to another community as his rarely present father finally abandoned the family.
When Bryan and his mother moved back to the community three years later, the man attempted to resume abusing him. But Bryan was big enough now to defend himself and escape, only to receive threats to not tell anyone of the abuse or the man would hurt his single-parenting mother.
It would be hard to imagine Bryan’s future being anything but dark and twisted, as pain and bitterness enveloped his young life. And with a father who was a “here-today, gone-tomorrow” figure in his young life, the trajectory of Bryan’s life became a textbook search for escaping pain: In seventh grade he began drinking heavily and by the time he was a sophomore in high school he was a bitter mess, addicted to alcohol and spiraling out of control.
Could God ever take the atrocities committed against this child and redeem them for good?
Bryan Jarrett, lead pastor of Northplace Church in Sachse, Texas, is the answer.
Today, Bryan and his wife, Haley, form a ministry team – impacting lives for Christ with the gospel. Bryan explains that one of the deep connections that he shares with Haley is that her parents fostered kids coming out of abusive situations, so she had many foster siblings as she was growing up, while he was on the victim side of life.
One might be tempted to think that as Bryan was now the lead pastor of a large church, that was God’s miraculous response to what seemed at one time unredeemable sin. But the reality was, becoming the lead pastor of Northplace Church was not only a divine response, it was also a connecting point to bringing redemption a full 180 degrees!
Most people who have had a chance to hear Bryan speak or have interacted with him in some way, know his life verse: Genesis 50:20 and the story of Joseph, where he tells his brothers who sold him into slavery that what they intended for evil, God has used it for good (to save many lives).
One of the dreams the Jarretts shared as a couple was to one day be able to buy a ranch where kids in foster care could come and experience acceptance, fun, love, and be introduced to Christ.
The ranch idea has several different roots, including studies that show how equine therapy is highly effective in cases of recovery from physical and emotional trauma. However, who would have guessed that God began “preparing the future” in Bryan through a television show from his childhood.
“The program was called The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams,” Bryan reminisces. “It was about a man who was accused of a murder he didn’t commit and he fled into the mountains — a grizzly bear became his best friend.”
Bryan says he found himself identifying with Grizzly Adams, for even though he wasn’t falsely accused, he was being abused. He found himself drawn to the wilderness where he could briefly escape the reality of his life. And to this day, Bryan says the outdoors has been a personal place of healing, which also ties directly into the dream of a ranch for abused children.
However, the dream he and Haley originally had was to develop the foster ministry after they retired from the church — spending their “golden years” investing in the lives of fostered and abused children.
But in 2011, Northplace Church got the Jarretts’ dream off to an early start as the church began offering a camp using rented facilities for kids in foster care or were abused — it was a foreshadowing for what God was preparing.
“Several years later, in 2014, a staff member showed me a real estate listing — it was for a ranch northeast of Dallas,” Bryan recalls with a bit of a laugh. “I told him, ‘You’re about 20 years too early and millions of dollars short.’”
But that conversation planted a seed and the Jarretts started praying for God’s direction. And then, God started opening doors.
“There was one miracle confirmation after another that led to the purchase of this place (Lonesome Dove Ranch) in 2015 and it changed everything,” Bryan says.
LONESOME DOVE RANCH
Located just outside of Royse City, Texas, a small town on the northern edge of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, Lonesome Dove Ranch is now not only a camp destination, but is also a working 120-acre ranch that operates as a non-profit organization.
And as Bryan and Haley had dreamed, every summer the ranch now offers, among other events, the Round-Up — a series of six (and growing) three-day camps for kids in foster care or were abused to experience life in a whole new environment. And outside of their vision on how things should go, Bryan is now also a bivocational minister as he continues to lead Northplace Church as well as work at the ranch.
But a working ranch doesn’t run itself (especially if you’ve never operated a ranch before), so the Jarretts turned their weaknesses into strengths by bringing on board the key experience they needed.
Kenny and Tammy Pryor were AGWM missionaries to South Africa, building a Bible school. By “coincidence,” while the Pryors were back in the United States raising funds to continue their work, the couple met the Jarretts.
In what seemed just to be an innocent conversation, the Pryors’ experience as ranchers in Wyoming (1988-96) came up as well as the fact Ken was also a mason. They had worked with Builders International and MAPS construction over a period of four years. When the Jarretts’ dream of one day owning a ranch for ministering to kids in foster care or were abused was mentioned, the Pryors threw their names into the hat to possibly be managers of the ranch one day — believing as the Jarretts did, that the ranch was a dream potentially two decades away.
Little did they know that less than a year later, Bryan would call with a question — “We have the ranch. Still interested?” The relatively quick response? “We’re in!”
Kenny Pryor, who is now an AG U.S. Missionary serving with Church Mobilization, oversees operations at Lonesome Dove Ranch as well as assists rural churches with building projects and community outreaches.
“We do all the ranching — grounds, horses, and cows,” Kenny explains. “We trained all the horses here but one, we keep watch on the facilities, and help with the camps.”
And over the years, Kenny and Tammy have been instrumental in many upgrades as the camp capabilities were expanded through converting buildings for other uses, adding a chapel, expanding the dining facilities, expanding the bunkhouses for additional campers, and much more.
Shane Gore, Northplace Church executive pastor, and his wife, Kara, an executive assistant at the church, are key volunteers, serving as camp directors for the annual Round-Up camps – having done so since the church initiated the camps in 2011.
“We do a lot of the upfront training for volunteers, take care of recruiting volunteers — including teams from inside and outside the state of Texas,” Shane says. “We also put together schedules, put together a leadership team, and provide direction for them as well.”
“When we first started the camps,” Bryan says, “the biggest challenges were identifying the right kids with the right set of needs that could be helped by what we offer . . ., now we’re overwhelmed as we’ve added more camps and more kids. Our biggest challenges now are getting enough quality people to volunteer and serve and the financial resources to make it all happen.”
With 30 to 35 staff members and 40 trained counselors needed to adequately serve and minister to the 40 campers at each of the six camps — with all campers attending free of charge via the Jarretts’ fundraising efforts — the challenges are more than understandable.
“We have added camps and made more room for kids, and still end up with a waiting list,” Bryan says. “I think we could run camps all summer and still have a waiting list because the needs are so great.”
Unless a person has been a child in foster care, lived through physical and/or sexual abuse, been neglected to the point of removal from their home, or some combination of those things, the trauma kids attending Round-Up are experiencing is nearly impossible to grasp.
When the children, ages 6-12, get off the bus at Lonesome Dove Ranch for their first Round-Up camp, it is not uncommon for volunteers to see sullen faces and downcast eyes. For the stories these children have heard about Round-Up could easily be too good to be true. They’re prepared for another deception, another misplaced trust, another disappointment.
Bryan points out that many of the kids attending have never been outside of an urban poverty environment. It’s that same mystery of the outdoors, that fascination that drew him as a child, that helps draw kids out of their shells and into the wonder of multiple firsts in their lives.
“Most have never been on a tractor, never caught a fish, they’ve never ridden a horse, never climbed on a hay bale (much less a hay bale mountain), never been on a jet ski . . .,” Bryan says. “The ranch environment is special for them because it is the first of so many things they’ve never been exposed to, and the joy of experiencing those firsts opens up the door for us to start having more important conversations with them about spiritual things and emotional things.”
Although there are a multitude of first experiences for the children, the focus of Round-Up camps is threefold: build positive relationships, help mend broken hearts, and introduce children to Christ.
On a purposeful hayride toward the end of camp, four stops are made, each site demonstrating in some way resilience — including a stop to meet a horse called Hope. Hope is a rescue horse, having been abused, but then adopted by Lonesome Dove Ranch.
Although the positive impact horses have on those struggling with trauma is well established, Hope’s own traumatic life story is one that kids connect to in a remarkable fashion.
One parent shared her adopted daughter’s story:
“. . . what made this camp extra special was a horse named Hope. She couldn't wait to tell me this horse's story that was so similar to her own. She felt immensely connected. To know that another creature could experience trauma yet still be able to trust and love made a big impression on her. And when she showed me the pictures, I couldn't believe how relaxed and comfortable she was around the horse. Our daughter struggles with anxiety and fears in so many ways daily despite our reassurances. But for a moment she could put those aside and just be in the moment. Truly a miracle moment!”
At the final stop on the ride is a large cypress cross. There, Bryan steps out and shares his personal testimony, further cementing the love God has for each child, no matter what they’ve been through or are currently facing.
By the end of the three-day experience, which includes a birthday party that recognizes and celebrates every individual child’s birthday and a memory book filled with pictures of the fun they had, kids are understandably reluctant to leave. The bright eyes, the upward tilt of heads, the hugs, and the tears — staff included — all point to a transformational experience.
Some may question whether a three-day camp can make a difference in a child’s life. The answer, according to Braylon, who only had the opportunity to attend the camp one year before he aged out, is a resounding “yes.”
In talking about his experience, Braylon, now a junior in high school, indicated that kids who have gone through traumatic experiences tend to have triggers and/or act out — just two of the reasons special training is required for counselors.
“If something triggered us, they were there to comfort us and help us process it,” Braylon explains. “I didn’t really have a lot of things that triggered me at that point because the love and support they had for me . . . everyone was really loving and kind and made me want to come back.”
Tori, who was fostering Braylon at the time, says that he came home a different boy than when he went to the camp.
Braylon agrees. “I feel my life changed from that point — I had a positive outlook on life, I didn’t let my past define me, I didn’t live in that shame . . . I didn’t hold any guilt or anything . . . I knew Christ loved me and no matter what happened in my life, I still mattered.”
A month after returning from camp, Braylon accepted Tori’s request to adopt him. Then, this summer, Braylon (now 17) returned to the Round-Up camp, only this time as part of the “crew” — teens who help with activities, crafts, and worship while having fun with the campers.
“God put me in that situation to give back to those kids and show them the love of God,” Braylon explains, noting how the kids looked up to him as a role model and identified quickly with him as a former camper. “I also developed a real appreciation for the leaders and staff members — all the time and effort they put in for the kids to get away from harsh situations . . . and focus on just having fun.”
“On paper, Braylon was one of those kids no one wanted, he had a lot of issues,” Tori says, “but kids are not what’s on paper. Braylon is now an honor roll student and is an amazing young man. But I think that time at camp, that shifting towards God, he decided to be who God made him — he made the decision to allow God to work in his life.”
It’s not easy leading, managing, directing, or volunteering at the Round-Up — working with kids who are deeply wounded takes patience, love, sacrifice of self, and a resolve to see the child behind the expressions of pain.
Yet, as Shane and Kara, Kenny and Tammy, Bryan and Haley, Braylon and Tori, and countless other volunteers, kids, parents, and parents who foster children can attest to, any sacrifice made, God returns beyond measure in countless ways.
Shane and Kara note that one of the blessings they’ve encountered is their children (now 19 and twin 17-year-olds) have also caught the vision and purpose of the Round-Up and insist on being a part of the camps every year.
“They love it so much,” Kara says. “It’s their missions trip and the highlight of the year for them. It changes who you are as a person and how you want to serve and love others . . . we are amazed that we get to be a part of this, to serve these families and these kids.”
And perhaps there’s no bigger reward than the feedback the staff regularly receives concerning the camp and the difference it made, including this message:
“Lonesome Dove impressed me like no other kid’s camp or related experience. Seeing the way all the adults were so intentional, loving, and kid-centered made me cry. The cross and teaching examples about growing were very meaningful to Everett and clearly engaged his faith.”
“I get up every day and pray, ‘Lord of the harvest, send more laborers into the harvest,’ and that’s not just a missionary cry,” Bryan states, “that’s a cry for those of us who work with orphans and abused kids that He would send people into this mission field.”
“You meant to hurt me, but God turned your evil into good to save the lives of many people, which is being done” (Genesis 50:20, NCV).