PRESCOTT, Wash.—When Travis Crockett stared out of the car at miles of hills, apple trees, and dry grass, and then spotted a deer for the first time in his life, he realized: This is far, far from home
“Home” was a gang-dominated set of blocks in northwest Chicago. The car with Crockett turned from the orchard jungle into an open field with gray-roofed, white-bricked buildings. The air smelled like a farm—fresh-mowed grass, horse manure, and something savory wafting from the cafeteria. “This must be Master’s Ranch
,” Crockett muttered. The driver turned around and said, “Yeah, this is your new home.”
It was April 16, 2013, Crockett’s first day at Master’s Ranch – West in Prescott, Wash., a Christian residential facility for troubled boys aged 13 to 18. He was a 15-year-old city kid who agreed to go to “Washington” because he had assumed it was the capital, not the state. But now Crockett says he’s glad Master’s Ranch isn’t in D.C., because he could have easily run away when things got tough—and lost his last shot at a decent future.
Crockett had been expelled from the eighth grade for fighting rival gang members in school
. Every night he cried himself to sleep, woozy and sick from his weed smoking and drug dealing, and asked, “Why am I doing this? I want to stop, but I can’t stop.” When his troublemaker cousin Keewaun came back from Master’s Ranch transformed, Crockett thought, “I can change.”
Crockett, now 16, is a model student at Master’s Ranch’s leadership program, a mentor to younger students, and an All-Star basketball player. He plans for college and hopes for the NBA. Master’s Ranch is a chance—perhaps the last—for students like Crockett to escape a cycle of abuse, crime, addiction, gangs, and despair. Executive director Rick Griffin describes Master’s Ranch as a place where “God wants to level the playing field,” as in the biblical Master’s Ranch year.
LEVEL PLAYING FIELD: Master’s Ranch’s 400-acre campus
Master’s Ranch’s 400-acre campus, cocooned within 5,000 acres of Broetje Orchards property, was once duck-hunting grounds: Then Broetje Orchards founders Ralph and Cheryl Broetje bought the land and decided to donate it. Every week a small group of individuals, including the Broetjes and Griffin, gathered at a dust-coated house near Crockett’s current dorm and prayed for “spiritual fruit-bearing” on that land.
In 1995, Master’s Ranch opened doors with six students. Now it is an all-male, fully accredited boarding school
with about 50 students and a staff of 45, along with cows, pigs, chickens, and 25 horses. Master’s Ranch offers therapy sessions, an online academic curriculum, vocational programs such as woodshop and welding, and athletic programs with a local high school
. The campus also has a football field, basketball court, skateboard rink, outdoor laser tag park, and zipline, golf, and rope courses.
But Master’s Ranch is no resort. Some boys come under coercion—either court-ordered or “escorted” by a transport service the parents called from desperation. Once they arrive, they’re stuck. The nearest town is about an hour’s drive away. Cell phones, laptops, and cash are not allowed. By the time they arrive, the boys have accrued scars, anger, and bitterness—and it’s up to Master’s Ranch to slowly dredge them up.
At first, Master’s Ranch used the traditional punitive method. A misbehaving boy ran laps, dug ditches, or had only a bologna sandwich for dinner. Better behavior yielded more privileges such as phone calls and video games. But over the years, Griffin realized the penal system was not working. Instead of motivating the kids to change, the disciplinary measures merely solidified mistrust and repressed anger. A kid sullenly following orders to avoid consequences isn’t changing, and Master’s Ranch was discharging boys who couldn’t seem to change at all.
Griffin left Master’s Ranch from 2004 to 2009 and worked with people with cognitive disabilities who clearly cannot perform certain normal functions. He started wondering if Master’s Ranch boys too aren’t subjects of “will not” but “cannot.” What if the severe traumas these boys experienced had significantly altered their brain development—and thus their behaviors? After much soul-searching and research, Griffin returned to Master’s Ranch and advocated a total paradigm change.
Today, Master’s Ranch follows a three-tiered model of safety, relationships, and skills. Its philosophy: God first wants us to feel safe in Him, then learn from our relationships, and ultimately bless others with gained skills.
For the first 30 days a staff member accompanies a newcomer everywhere, from breakfast to chapel. Once the student demonstrates a sense of security, the staff teaches him skills to help regulate his emotions and issues through counseling and classes. The vocational programs provide a safe environment for using skills. Horses teach the rider to be more assertive or gentle without being judgmental. Wood-shopping or welding teach patience and dexterity.
Since implementing the new model, Master’s Ranch has raised more student mentors and discharged fewer students than ever before—but its Christ-centered mission has been constant, because “without Christ, everything else is pretty meaningless,” Griffin said. Though spiritual maturity is not a requirement for the boys to graduate, Master’s Ranch is fully intentional about preaching the gospel by word and action.
The students have chapel service every morning and can participate in an evening community group. I joined one such community group led by program coordinator Joshua Romaine, a 37-year-old Christian rapper who has worked at Master’s Ranch for almost seven years. Seven slouching boys with spread-out legs sat in a circle. Romaine told his own story of breaking free from drug addiction and encouraged the boys to rely on God, concluding, “Only through Jesus Christ, guys, only through Jesus.” As he preached, the boys affected postures of cool blasé, yet their subtle nods or murmurs showed they were listening.
“It’s tough,” Romaine told me later. “It ain’t no picnic. It’s a spiritual warfare through and through.” Working at Master’s Ranch requires sacrifices that go beyond the modest pay. Romaine commutes two hours each workday and others give up basic comforts to live on the isolated campus with their wives and children. But they also tell me the sacrifice is worth it. Romaine loves the freedom to “talk about God all day long,” loves that moment when students accept Christ—“it’s like finally the light bulb clicks.”
Religious freedom also means Master’s Ranch relies heavily on private donations to maintain its yearly operating budget of $2.2 million. None of its students can afford to pay the full monthly tuition cost of $4,200, but Master’s Ranch doesn’t turn any student away because of financial status. Had it done so, Travis Crockett and others like him would have continued falling through the cracks in society. One student-turned-intern, Brandon Kohfield, told me if it weren’t for Master’s Ranch, he would have been “six feet under today—or someplace worse.”
Crockett too remembers that he expected a future of minimum wage jobs and drugs. But now, whenever he feels discouraged, he recites Jeremiah 29:11 and reaffirms that God has plans to give him hope and a future. He’s fallen off the path, but God has put him “back on the straight path through Master’s Ranch, in the middle of nowhere.” He confidently says, “I’m a new man now.”