Learning, Healing, and Having Fun

Summer at Dakota Boys and Girls Ranch

Learning, Healing, and Having Fun

When you think back to your childhood, what do you remember about summer? Long, lazy days exploring the outdoors? Going to the local beach or swimming pool? Biking? Playing softball or kick-the-can? Family reunions? Vacation Bible School? Summer Camp?

The list goes on and on, but the common denominators are having fun, building relationships, and participating in activities that will benefit you your whole life.

While some of the children who come to the Ranch have had these same experiences, most haven't. Many of their families didn't have the resources to send them to camp or enroll them in summer activities, so they spent summers indoors watching TV or playing video games. Others lived in the chaos of addiction and poverty where they took on the role of caring for their siblings and trying to protect them from violence. Still others used drugs and alcohol to escape their circumstances.

Summer programming gives our kids a unique and positive summer experience. They experience activities they may not have been exposed to before—like gardening, fishing, hiking, art, music, and more. They learn new things in classes like Discover Dakota, Sports History, and Pop Culture. School has rarely been consistent for Ranch kids so it's important to challenge them to learn. Learning without the stress of tests and grades helps kids see that learning can be fun and that they can succeed.

Through scheduled summer activities, our kids also learn the value of routine and structure, which is especially important for children who have experienced trauma or are processing difficult emotions in therapy. Schedules, rhythm, and predictability allow them to trust what comes next and reduce their hyper-anxiety.

While the classes are different, the structure of summer programming is the same on all three Ranch campuses. Classes start at 9 a.m. and go until noon, Monday through Thursday. Residents are split into small groups that rotate through the activities.

In Bismarck and Fargo, Thursdays are reserved for special outings. In Fargo, the kids spend Thursdays going to the zoo, touring a local radio station, and waterskiing at a nearby lake (thanks to a nonprofit that brings together at-risk kids and volunteers with boats).

"Thursdays in Bismarck include things like touring the career academy or the heritage center," said Tal Pollert, Wellness Coordinator, who coordinates summer programming in Bismarck. "We hike the trails and go through the informational center at Game and Fish. And every year we take one day to visit Medora and hike in Theodore Roosevelt National Park."

How our garden grows

Gardening is one of the kids' favorite classes.

"They don't all like it at first because watering and weeding is work," said Paul Cordova, Recreation Specialist/Youth Care Worker. "But when they see how something grew from a seed they planted, they start to understand and like the process of nurturing it, paying attention to it, and feeding it. And, of course, they all love the harvest. When it comes time for that, they'll pull stuff right off the vine and eat it right there.

When it's time to harvest the produce, residents give some to the kitchen where it's incorporated into the children's meals and used to prepare dishes in their Food and Fun class. In Bismarck, they set up a table filled with produce at Zion Lutheran Church and give it out for free-will donations.

Introducing unfamiliar activities can help kids build confidence, gain independence, and learn how to navigate new environments—all of which are important for long-term success.

One of our residents said it best, "I love how calm I feel [in the garden.] You don't have to focus on other people or get along with other people. You just get to focus on the plants."

The great outdoors

Marisa Rudie, Program Director on the Ranch's Bismarck campus, believes getting kids outside is one important aspect of summer programming.

"I'm a true believer that fresh air and sunshine make everybody feel better," Rudie said.

Wildlife/outdoors class, taught by Andrew Meier, a Dakota Memorial School teacher, gets the kids outdoors through a variety of activities. They fish from the shore of the Souris River, cook outdoors, go birdwatching, care for and release pheasants into the wild, learn how to tie knots, plant flowers and apple trees, and make charcuterie boards in the shop.

The GEAR Mini-bike Program, available to residents in Minot and Bismarck, is also a favorite activity. The kids spend a couple of weeks learning about safety, then learn how to care for and maintain the mini-bikes, and finally, learn how to ride.

Putting at-risk kids on mini-bikes may seem like a bad idea, but our many years of experience with the mini-bike program have proven it's a great way to teach kids how to be responsible for their own safety, build trust in their ability to make good decisions, and learn to understand and accept rewards and consequences. The mini-bikes also build self-confidence in the kids as they learn how to care for and ride the bikes. They become very conscientious about the safety, maintenance, and riding rules, often speaking up to keep other accountable.

Pieces of childhood

The goal of summer programming is to introduce unfamiliar activities that help kids build confidence, gain independence, and learn how to navigate new environments and work with other people—all of which are important for healing and long-term success.

While children come to the Ranch from all walks of life and all perspectives, they have all experienced something difficult that has chipped away at their childhood.

"But at the heart of it," Tal said, "they are still kids. What I love about summer programming is that we get to give some of those pieces of childhood back. We get to say, 'You don't need to take on all those grownup things right now.' And then we show them how to have fun and to enjoy being kids while they can."

This article was originally published in Ranch Voice: Summer 2022.

Read more stories like this and explore other issues of Ranch Voice here.

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