St. Jude’s Ranch brightens season for children, community

Consider it, in retrospect, a sort of yuletide omen.

When Cindy Harris arrived at St. Jude’s Ranch for Children for a job interview, she noticed a handful of Christmas tree ornaments hanging on a tree.

In August.

Harris, chief development officer of St. Jude’s Ranch, now knows that the ornaments had been placed so high that they simply couldn’t be taken down easily. Still, the wayward bulbs also might be considered a sign of how, at Christmas, Harris says, “the whole community comes together.”

On Saturday , visitors will see a lot of ornaments at St. Jude’s Ranch, when the nonprofit organization hosts its sixth annual “Night of Lights” fundraiser and community open house. The family-friendly, open-to-the-public event will run from 5 to 9 p.m. at the ranch, at 100 St. Jude’s Road, in Boulder City.

The $25 admission charge – children younger than 3 are free – covers food and s’more stations, carolers, photos with Santa, arts and crafts activities, and music and other entertainment. A silent auction also will be offered. For more information, call 294-7100.

For kids – and maybe for a few adults, too – the highlight of the party may well be the sight of Santa Claus being escorted to the event by a U.S. Secret Service protective detail. Rick Shields, special agent in charge at the Las Vegas field office of the Secret Service, said this will mark the third year in a row that the agency will participate in the St. Jude’s Ranch fundraiser.

“It’s a way for us to reach back into the community and put smiles on kids’ faces,” Shields says.

The only problem, he adds: “Kids want us to put on our sunglasses, and it’s nighttime.”

But no problem, Shields says. “It’s just been a very good response, and it’s very rewarding for us and the kids.”

Besides serving as a fundraiser and open house, “Night of Lights” is a holiday celebration for children who live at St. Jude’s Ranch, which was founded in 1967 as a home for abused, neglected and abandoned children.

A few days before Thanksgiving, the St. Jude’s campus already was awash in colored lights, inflatable figures – reindeer, Santa Claus, “Nutcracker” soldiers and other characters of the season – and ornaments hanging off of trees. In the automobile museum on the campus, a life-size, and surprisingly realistic, Santa Claus was even sitting astride a Harley-Davidson.

But holiday preparations at St. Jude’s Ranch involve more than the visible. It also means finding ways to help children who, for one reason or another, will be separated from their families on Christmas.

Shani Melgaard, development associate at St. Jude’s, says St. Jude’s Ranch is home to 47 children ranging in age from infancy to 22, although that number can change daily.

Children live in homelike buildings that are headed by house parents and which operate, really, like any other home. They attend school during the day, then return home to play, do homework and tend to chores.

Brian Franklin has been a house dad at St. Jude’s Ranch for just more than six years. Actually, he corrects, it’s “therapeutic home supervisor. That’s the technical term.”

But, he adds with a broad smile, “I would just give you the regular: I’m a dad.”

And a single dad at that, both to his charges and his own kids, a 17-year-old and a 19-year-old who live with him in the ranch’s St. Michael’s house when they’re not with their mother.

Two weeks ago, there were two boys living in the house, rather than the more typical six. That, Franklin says, “is a huge break for me, because normally my home is the home with the difficult teenagers.”

Already, Christmas trees have been set up in the comfortable living room, next to the television, and in the airy kitchen. Franklin says the children who live at St. Jude’s Ranch arrive with varying experiences of Christmas.

Some have celebrated Christmas at home, others haven’t. Some have become accustomed to observing specific family traditions, others have no family holiday traditions at all.

Emotionally, Christmas can be tough for some children who come to St. Jude’s Ranch.

“I’ve had some where it’s really difficult,” Franklin says, with kids who are “withdrawn and antisocial, and don’t want to be around, and spend a lot of time outside, and (are) really not excited about anything.

“But I do try to incorporate some of my life experiences and make them laugh. I tell them, ‘There were Christmases I didn’t get presents, and it wasn’t because my mom couldn’t afford it. It was because I didn’t act right.’ They’re, like, ‘Really? You didn’t get a present?’ So you just have to loosen up and make them feel welcome.”

The adjustment tends to be easier among children who arrive at the ranch a few months before Christmas, Franklin says. Then, they’ve had a chance to “get used to you, and they get used to how you are and things you do.”

Some children even arrive with Christmas memories that will never be found in a holiday storybook. For example, Franklin has worked with children who were separated from their families on Christmas Day.

“They don’t remember what they got for Christmas,” he says. “They just remember they were taken … from their parents on Christmas Day. And I’ve had two kids who actually lost parents on Christmas. So my role was huge in their life, because they lost their parents, and you have to be that parent at that moment.

“We do a lot of laughing and joking just to make them feel welcome,” Franklin says. “But we talk about a lot of things.

“We always talk about what Christmas is about and ask the kids what Christmas is about, and some of them don’t even know. Then we talk about it. We don’t get into depth, but I want them to understand how Christmas started.”

Harris notes that, whenever possible, attempts are made to keep siblings together at the ranch.

“One thing we are proud of is, at most places, that doesn’t happen,” she says. “Usually, what happens is, siblings are separated.”

When they are, St. Jude’s Ranch then tries to accommodate children’s desire to maintain contact with their brothers and sisters. Billy, 12½, lives in St. Michael’s and says he has spent “six or seven” Christmases at St. Jude’s Ranch.

This year, he’s looking forward to spending Christmas with his two sisters, ages 16 and 18, in Las Vegas.

For some children at St. Jude’s, the ultimate gift would be to be reunited with their families. For others, it’s to be adopted.

“Often, our children have been bumped around by the system,” Harris says, so the goal is to “normalize” their lives as much as possible.

And a part of that is giving children at the ranch a good Christmas.

“Not everything is unicorns and rainbows here. This is difficult stuff we’re doing here,” Harris adds. “So you have to be careful not to overindulge and to be sure Christmas is as normal as it would be for our own children.”

Donors and sponsors help to cover the cost of gifts and other Christmas-related expenses. The ranch also raises money by efforts that include collecting labels from Campbell’s products to exchange for vehicles.

A longtime project for the ranch also has been collecting, and then having children at St. Jude’s Ranch refashion, used Christmas cards and other-occasion greeting cards. The recycled cards then are sold in the ranch’s gift shop and online (www.stjudesranch.org).

However, Hallmark, American Greeting and Disney cards can’t be accepted. That’s ironic, considering the inflatable figures of Mickey and Minnie Mouse that are included among the Christmas decorations in a courtyard at the ranch.

“I have it on my agenda to write a letter,” Melgaard jokes.

In the end, what may be the most surprising thing about Christmas at St. Jude’s Ranch is what you might find on children’s Christmas lists.

“I think the thing I find most interesting is, you’d think if you were a foster kid, you’d want everything,” Harris says. “You’d want it all because you don’t have anything. But what they want most is a letter from their parents. You can hand this Bic pen to them if it’s from Mom, and that would be a treasured thing.

“They very much look for meaningful things,” Harris says. “That’s why it’s important for us to provide a meaningful Christmas.”

Contact reporter John Przybys at
jprzybys@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0280.

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