In so many ways, the children who come to Dakota Boys and Girls Ranch are just like other kids. They may have endured more trauma than others and need help to heal and move forward, but like all kids, they face a full range of choices as they step out into the world. Just like their peers, some Ranch kids go to college. Others aren't interested or suited for that path.
On the other hand, Ranch kids are quite different from others in that most have not been taught basic life skills or the things they need to live independently. While many of us learned how to cook and do laundry and ride a city bus from our family, these kids often lived in families unequipped to teach them these basics—so we do it here.
While kids are with us, we help them get ready for life after the Ranch—for life as adults who contribute to their families, neighborhoods, and communities. Whether they need basic life or independent living skills, we meet children where they are at; helping them prepare for the next step in their lives and for long-term success.
Basic Life Skills
Personal hygiene, cooking, housekeeping, laundry, and other basic life skills often fall through the cracks when kids have moved frequently, and/or experienced trauma, lived in poverty, or lived in foster care.
Michelle Racine teaches basic skills in her class, "Applied Topics of Daily Living," where she adjusts the curriculum to meet the needs of the students in each class.
"I've taught kids how to plunge a toilet, others how to cook, drive, or find a job. It's all based on what they need," Racine said. "The longer I teach the more I realize how much they don't know."
Racine taught one young man how to count money. In a couple years he will be on his own and will need that skill. She also taught social skills to a group of kids—things like how to shake someone's hand, appropriate eye contact, how to approach someone you want to be your friend, etc.
One group of students learned how to sew, and they made some of the curtains hanging in her classroom. One student made a pillow for his mom. Last fall, her students made the desserts for the open house of the newly remodeled school. She likes to give them real projects to test their skills and show them they have a place in the world and can contribute.
Ranch residential staff assign chores to the residents—both personal chores like making their bed and cleaning their room; and communal chores like taking out the garbage, doing the dishes, etc. Because we try to make living at the Ranch as much like home as possible, we give them opportunities to do extra chores to earn a weekly allowance.
Scarlet* said living at the Fargo Youth Home has helped her develop some independence skills before she turns 18 later this year. "When I was at home all I did was sleep, eat, read, and go to school. I've learned how to take responsibility for my actions."
"One of the things I learned is how to keep my room clean. Because, if you're going to school and working, it's going to be really overwhelming coming home to a messy apartment."
Cooking is another important skill some kids learn while they are at the Ranch. Most of us learned to cook from our parents and grandparents. We crawled up on a chair or the counter to watch and "help." Then as we got older, we prepared one dish and eventually a full meal. No matter how it turned out, the adults in our family praised us for our amazing cooking skills (our siblings probably gave us a more honest critique)! Ranch kids don't always have the same experiences. Some have rarely eaten a home-cooked meal, much less cooked one. So, we teach them how to cook while they are at the Ranch, both in the classroom and in the living environment.
Racine said, "We have made spaghetti, lasagna, chicken soup, and smoothies. One time I bought some packaged soups and showed them how they could add ingredients. Some of these kids may not care to cook from scratch, so it's good for them to learn you can add some chicken or vegetables to a package."
In Bismarck, an educator from North Dakota State University Extension Services helps teach a summer Food and Fun course. Tal Pollert, Wellness Coordinator in Bismarck, said the kids learn different kitchen skills like reading recipes, making shopping lists, shopping for groceries, and preparing and cooking food.
Learning to cook prepares kids to take care of themselves. They also learn skills transferable to other parts of their lives—like how to do basic math, budgeting, shopping, and managing their time.
Scarlet sometimes cooks meals for the Youth Home residents on weekends. "The boys won't admit it," she said, "but they really liked my meatballs!"
For most of us, transitioning to independence is a gradual process. As we transition, our families provide financial assistance and support as we learn to live on our own. Many Ranch kids live in the foster care system and don't have that luxury—overnight they go from being dependent on the state for food, clothing, shelter, and health care, to being on their own.
Independent living programs at the Ranch help residents ease the transition, making them more likely to succeed on their own and less likely to experience homelessness and unemployment.
Responsible cell phone use is one life skill we teach at the Ranch. Some Ranch kids at the Fargo Youth Home have a cell phone they can take with them when they go to their jobs or school in the community. We teach them how to use it responsibly and keep themselves safe. They also learn to take care of it, because they are responsible for repairing or replacing it.
"It's their phone, not ours," said Tom Kopp, Residential Program Director in Fargo. "They buy their own minutes, and if it breaks, they have to replace it. They must agree to all the rules and sign a contract. And we only get kids a phone if they have a job or extended independent time. It's for their safety as much as anything."
Due to the confidentiality of the other kids, they do have to turn their phone in at the staff office when they get back to the Youth Home.
Money management is a vital life skill most Ranch kids haven't learned during childhood. When they transition to adulthood, they are completely unprepared to manage a household budget and make wise financial decisions.
In Minot, Todd Fjeldahl teaches financial literacy. In his class, students learn how to create a budget and live within their means. They look up salaries for the careers that interest them and learn all about payroll and take-home pay.
"We also do a unit on stocks," Fjeldahl said. "I give them a certain amount of money and they choose stocks and mutual funds. We check every week to see how their investments are doing and they can decide if they want to buy more, sell, that kind of thing."
At the Fargo Youth Home, Ranch residents learn basic budgeting skills and then put what they've learned into practice. Kopp says they start by providing kids money for lunches.
"If a resident is working and independent, we'll give them $25 and they have to use that to plan a week's worth of lunches," Kopp said. "We give them the grocery ads so they can make a list and then we take them to the store. We try not to be super helpful or picky about what they buy. If they buy $25 worth of Ramen noodles and then run out of food or get sick of Ramen, we use that as a teachable moment. Of course, if they don't make it through the week [before] running out of food, we're obviously going to feed them."
Housing is another big challenge for young adults who don't have a family to fall back on. And for Ranch residents who have an 18th birthday looming, it's often the challenge that causes the most anxiety. Finding an apartment is one of the skills the Ranch teaches kids as they near adulthood. Staff show them how to find available apartments, take them to look at a few, pick up some applications, and help them complete the applications.
Transportation is one more thing young adults moving from treatment or foster care into adulthood must master. Being independent relies heavily on being able to get themselves from point A to point B—so they can work and go to school. At the Fargo Youth Home, we start tackling the transportation challenge by showing residents how to navigate the public transportation system. Someone goes with them the first few times to show them how it works. When they are comfortable, they start using the bus system to get around town.
"It's not just for work. They use public transportation to go to the mall or to go other places during their free time," Kopp said. "As long as they obey the rules and prove we can trust them, we give them more and more freedom. With permission from their guardian, of course."
Ranch residents often fall behind in getting a driver's license. Driving is an important coming-of-age ritual in America and in many communities, it's necessary to have a driver's license and a car to get to school and/or work. Children growing up in foster care and/or treatment don't usually have the opportunity to get their driver's license until they are 18 and living on their own.
"While we don't provide a car and let them drive while in our care, we do want kids to learn how to drive, so we help them get their permit and/or license," Kopp said.
It's not uncommon for kids at the Fargo Youth Home to take behind-the-wheel. The Youth Home works with a local company that picks them up, takes them driving for two hours, and then drops them off at home. The Ranch doesn't provide a car for them to take their driving test, but if they have access to a car, Youth Home staff help facilitate that and get them to and from the testing site.
Some residents get a job. Scarlet is now working 25 hours a week at a Dakota Boys and Girls Ranch Thrift Store.
"[Youth Home staff] helped me do the job application and prepared me for the interview," she said.
She got the job and is now learning how to deal with stressful situations at work. "I first came to the Ranch because of anger problems. So, I've had to learn coping skills to deal with angry customers."
Scarlet has learned to remain calm in the moment, and then to debrief with her co-workers. She has developed other strategies for dealing with stressors outside of work. "It helps me calm down when I go for a walk, watch a movie, or pick up a good book and get drawn into that," Scarlet said.
*Name changed to protect confidentiality
This article was originally published in Ranch Voice: Summer 2020.
Read more stories like this and explore other issues of Ranch Voice here.