By Gale Courey Toensing -- Today staff
BASALT, Colo. - In the high country of western Colorado on land that is surely sacred, Donna Otabachian has created a healing place for girls at risk of losing themselves to the ferocious forces of alcohol, drugs, unhealthy sexual activity and violence that stalk young people on and off the reservation these days.
Otabachian is the executive director of Ranch Good Days, a nonprofit organization that provides a temporary home, health services, education and a transformational program to girls ages 14 - 21 who have few, if any, good options.
Some girls are between foster care homes or have been put out of the system at the age of 18, but have not yet completed high school. Some have been snagged by the methamphetamine epidemic raging through the reservations. Some girls are referred through social services or churches. The girls usually stay at the ranch for up to three to six months.
Until RGD was founded in 2003, girls who got into trouble in Colorado were put into correctional facilities with older women serving criminal sentences.
''We knew the energy in those places didn't make a healing place for these girls, so we felt what we needed to do was find a place for these girls to come and heal, and give them meaning and hope in their lives. They are so worthy of the investment,'' Otabachian said.
The program uses horses and the restorative power of the land as a way to heal the wounds of abuse and neglect, teach the students to avoid risk behaviors and transition successfully into schools, workplaces and communities.
RGD is located on 370 acres of rambling mesa halfway between Denver and the Four Corners - the quadripoint in the Navajo Nation and Ute Mountain tribal lands where the state of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah meet.
The program serves a culturally diverse population of girls from around the state and country with a focused program called ''Women of Indigenous Culture'' that uses oral tradition and storytelling among its teaching techniques to serve Native girls - ''the most underserved sector in American society,'' Otabachian said.
Each girl at RGD is assigned a horse, often a brood mare, to care for, feed, nurture and help deliver her foal. The relationship teaches responsibility, planning, management, compassion and competency.
When the girls first arrive, they are a bit scared, Otabachian said.
''They think, 'Oh, what's expected of me?' But then when you put a rein in their hands and say, 'Here's your horse,' all of a sudden the shoulders drop, they pick up their chins and their eyes brighten up,'' Otabachian said.
The ranch currently has a learning center where students can access an online academy of the Colorado Department of Public Education, but future plans may include an on-site school, Otabachian said.
Otabachian didn't plan to establish a place for at-risk girls, but events unfolded that led to the creation of RGD, a work in progress.
''Things just happen that are unexplainable sometimes. I do believe there's a lot of push for this to happen, in my understanding of the universe,'' Otabachian said.
Otabachian has a doctorate in education administration and a master's degree in psychology. She worked with at-risk youth in a partnership between the Denver Museum of Nature and the public school system from 2001 - '03, serving 110 students, 52 of whom were American Indian. By the time funding was pulled, Otabachian had drawn a huge network of partners and volunteers who supported the efforts to inspire underachieving students to learn and achieve more.
The experience led to a think tank in Boulder where Vivian Delgado, a Native professor, helped the group review the museum project.
''We realized there were places for boys to get help, but no place for girls in the state of Colorado; no number to call if someone called and said, 'We've got this girl living in a basement. Her family sent her to work, but she's young enough that she still needs to go to school.' What I thought with this group of people who had really got behind these kids at the museum project was that we'd make the commitment,'' Otabachian said.
The supporters began a statewide appeal and things began to fall into place.
When Otabachian was bumped from an 88-acre property she had leased because the owner wanted to sell it for development, the RGD land was discovered. The land was in
foreclosure, but the owner wanted to preserve it. Arrangements to purchase the property were made and Otabachian moved in and began the program and the fund-raising effort to support it.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Development program and other financing will provide a total of around $5.2 million to purchase the land and build housing for the residents, and another $500,000 in donations will help its operating budget.
Other partners include the University of Colorado, some of the Ute tribes, the Navajo and Apache nations, local businesses and nonprofits, two of the state's congressional and senatorial delegates, federal agencies and organization such as the Arabian Horse Association.
RDG is licensed for only eight beds, but Otabachian has plans to expand to a 40-bed facility with a special place ''for our Native girls so we can hire Native staff. We know it would be good for them to have that feeling of family. We know that that actually works,'' Otabachian said.
Clifford Duncan, Northern Ute, has been guiding Otabachian and the students in their discovery of the land.
''There is a place on this land that he believes could have been a vision quest place. There is a round circular formation in the land that provides a healing feeling. It's really a beautiful place,'' Otabachian said.
An area of the formation will be investigated this summer and cultural and conservations easements will be placed on the property, Otabachian said. Most of the lands surrounding the ranch are protected from development.
RGD is a duly established 501(c)(3) nonprofit with a board of directors overseeing the financial matters and the program.
Otabachian does not take a salary from the project yet, but may in the future if a school is established.
''Something we're really proud of is it's a model that can be replicated. I'd be willing to share my shortcuts with anyone because these kids are in such dire situations right now. We got ferocious things out there like that methamphetamine chasing them down, and if there's anything we can do just to get more help for these kids we'll share everything. We're not interested in the whole franchise thing of making money. The only thing we're interesting in is helping these kids and protecting our model to make sure no one distorts it,'' Otabachian said.
For more information or to help, visit www.ranchgooddays.org.