Mannie was just an infant when his parents dropped him off at a family friend's and didn't come back. Mannie, now age 16 and wise beyond his years, says matter-of-factly, "They weren't ready, or didn't have the proper parenting to take care of me."
No anger. No resentment. Just calm acceptance of his reality.
But it hasn't always been that way.
Mannie lived with his foster mom (the family friend) for 11 years. And he liked her. "She was a nice person," Mannie said. "But eventually I began to resent her and to not like her and her family."
Mannie was physically abused by his older brother while living in her home. She got the brother out of the house as soon as she found out, but the damage was done. The adorable brown-eyed boy who moved into her house turned into an angry teenager.
Mannie's foster mom took him to see several counselors who tried to help him. "They did what they could," he said. "But I fought against it and didn't embrace the therapy. I thought it was a joke."
At age fourteen, Mannie turned to drugs to block the memories and pain of the abandonment and abuse he experienced in his early years. "[Marijuana] was easy to get and it became the thing to do when I was depressed or just wanted to escape. You're just not really feeling the day, so you go smoke. It becomes hard to kick after a while because it makes you happy."
For Mannie's foster mom, this was the last straw. She didn't have the energy or the resources to help Mannie get back on the right path. That's when Mannie was admitted to Dakota Boys and Girls Ranch.
"I hated it here," he said. "I resented being here and I got into a lot of fights."
He continued to resist the therapy, but something changed along the way.
"There were certain staff who began to understand me," Mannie said. "They understood why I was the way I was and helped me fix the problems. I felt like they really cared. One of my favorite staff, Alex, would stay with me when I was upset. We would play cards until I calmed down and was ready for bed."
At the same time, Jenean Jessen was on her own journey. Jeannie had a good job, a job she could retire from in ten years, but she hated it. One day after running the idea past her husband, she walked into work and gave her notice.
Her friend, a teacher at the Ranch, told her there was an opening and she should apply.
"I resisted," Jeannie said. "I thought it was the same thing. I was working with criminals in my old job and they'd be the same, just younger, at the Ranch. But I wasn't doing anything, so I thought I'd give it a try. I quickly learned it wasn't the same at all."
Jeannie remembers standing in the hall on one of her first days at the Ranch and witnessing one of the kids having a meltdown.
"I cried and cried. I realized then that these kids are here because of other people. I'd been working with those people all these years, and these kids were the products of their mistakes. It broke my heart. Just a few days in and I already loved it here."
Jeannie and Mannie met at Dakota Memorial School, the on-campus school of the Ranch. One day, Mannie was in the school office, where Jeannie worked, and he said, "People just don't care."
Jeannie responded, "We do care, Mannie."
"Not the way I want them to care," he said. "People care enough to say 'hi' to me. But I want a person like, well, like a parent, I guess. Your teachers care about you, but your parents, they really care about you."
"That was it," Jeannie said. "I went home and told my husband about Mannie and said I wanted to bring him home."
Jeannie and her husband, Doni, jumped through a lot of hoops to become foster parents so Mannie could spend time with them. At first, he went to church with them, went to their house for a while, and then went back to the Ranch. He and Doni connected.
"Doni is seasoned. Mannie is seasoned. They share that common spice," Jeannie said. "I think Mannie can relate to Doni in that they both came through so much and came out the other side doing so well. It's a God thing. God brought me to the Ranch so we could find our son."
At about the same time, Mannie started taking his treatment seriously.
"I started to accept the therapy and talked through all the things that really bothered me," he said.
Having people in his life like Jeannie and Doni, people who cared like he wanted to be cared about, gave Mannie something to work for. He could picture himself as part of a family and knew he had to work at his therapy to make it possible.
Now that Mannie is living full-time with Jeannie and Doni while they wait for his adoption to be finalized, he can appreciate his time living at the Ranch and reflect on what he learned.
And, Mannie continues to be a "Ranch kid," this time by his own choosing. When Mannie was given the choice between Dakota Memorial School and public school, he chose DMS. "When you go to regular school it's the same thing year after year. Here, it's different every year. You never know what to expect. It's like a mixed tape—a new experience almost every time and it's great. It's hard at the beginning of the year because it's lots of new kids and you don't know how they'll be. But I make friends easily, so it works out."
"I could have ended up so much worse," he said."Juvenile Detention. YCC [Youth Correctional Center], Dead. Overdosed. I know people who have done that. I'm definitely more confident. I'm more humorous. I really like living at [Jeannie and Doni's]. I have roots. I have a place to live. I feel safe. I have a place where people like me and accept me."
We take great care to guard the privacy of our children. The pictures you see of Ranch children are only used with the permission of the children themselves and the written permission of their guardians.
This article was originally published in Ranch Voice: Winter 2019.
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