About the Montanan
A Chinook Ranch Helps Troubled Teens
Story and photos by Patia Stephens
Steam rises from the kitchen sink, condensing on a window that looks out into the blackness of an early March midnight in northcentral Montana. Four teenage girls hunch forward over a sink, their voices murmuring encouraging words to the two tiny newborn creatures submerged in the hot water.
They are lambs, found freezing to death on the mud and straw of the sheep pen, inexplicably abandoned by the mother that should have licked them clean and urged them to stand. Now the bum lambs have four mothers--human mothers who will hold their flopping heads above the hot water until their thin bodies stop shivering, a sign that they are warm enough to survive. Mothers who will rub them dry and feed them precious colostrum--the ewes nutrient-rich first milk--from plastic Coke bottles equipped with thick black rubber nipples. Mothers who will adore and resent them with all the fierceness of teenage girls.
Five months later, that scene comes to mind as I stand under a sprawling expanse of August sky, dust clotting my nostrils, the bawling of sheep filling my ears. The bums are either long-dead or part of the massive, frantic wave of sheep that surges from corner to corner of the pen. Lambs born weighing only six to ten pounds are now in the seventy-five- to 100-pound range, ready to be shipped to the feedlot in Chinook, eleven miles to the west.
Ive arrived just in time to watch the girls separate the lambs and load them into the trailer. One girl holds the gate while the other three try to steer the sheep into a narrow chute. My friend Gay, a tall blonde in her late thirties, stands at the end of the chute, working a gate that lets each animal into either the trailer or an adjoining corral. She yells out directions: Come on, girls, work as a team.
The adolescent residents of Dancing Moon Ranch have come to the Hi-Line from across the country. Sent by desperate parents, the girls arrive with a variety of problems: drug and alcohol use, troubles in school, defiant behavior, family difficulties.
A private, therapeutic and educational school in a family setting, the ranch provides an opportunity to heal. The nucleus of the healing effort, and of the ranch itself, is L. Gay Miller. A 1982 graduate of UMs Department of Social Work, Gay is a therapist and surrogate parent to the teens who join her family, which includes her husband, Greg Anderson, and her five-year-old son, Cassidy.
On the family farm where she grew up, Gay takes in six girls--critical mass, she says--ranging in age from twelve to eighteen, for a year or more. She practices constant, ongoing therapy with the girls while engaged in the day-to-day demands of farming and ranching.
From taking care of livestock, Gay says, the girls learn responsibility and the realities of life and death. They discover teamwork and pride of ownership while irrigating fields of alfalfa, oats and barley. Kitchen chores and restoring an old house teach self-reliance and satisfaction in a job well done. And they find simple pleasures in the rare treat of going to a restaurant or watching the northern lights.
They dont live any differently than the kids down the road do except that we deal with their emotions every minute of every day, Gay says. We address their issues in everyday life.
Away from modern urban distractions, the girls at Dancing Moon learn skills increasingly overlooked in this culture: introspection, communication, self-love, trust, confidence.
Everything is sped up in the outside world, Gay says. Here its slowed down enough that theres time to think and feel and breathe and pay attention. Its about awareness--paying attention to what you think, what you feel, the people around you.
Drug abuse and rebelliousness are mechanisms for coping with and avoiding pain that erupt from loss, Gay says. Perhaps it is the loss of a parent or parents through adoption, divorce or death; perhaps its a less tangible loss, like innocence or security or love. For these kids, who tend to be bright and sensitive, pain not dealt with often comes out sideways.
Life is full of loss and pain, in equal parts to joy, I think, Gay says, but loss not acknowledged and healed paints over the joy. These kids come not being able to experience much joy. What were teaching is how to deal with those losses and move on. Learning how to cope, how to feel [the loss] and let it go, is important to survival.
The girls thrive under Gays eclectic brand of therapy, which includes a lot of hugs.
They talk about inner changes, they learn appreciation and they begin to define themselves on their own terms: I used to just hate my body, Susan says. All my friends were, like, heroin addicts, so they were all skinny. I thought that was how I was supposed to look, but I could never get my body to be that way. After eleven months at Dancing Moon Ranch, Susan speaks of her body with acceptance. Living with all these girls makes me realize that everybody has a different-shaped body, she says. Shes proud of her newfound physical strength, too. Now I can unload the grain trailer in half an hour, she boasts.
These revelations--the terror, the thrill, the relief--are intimately familiar to me, because I am one of Gays girls. When we met in 1983 at another therapeutic school, this one in northwestern Montanas Cabinet Mountains, I was fifteen and she was twenty-three. As a staff therapist, Gay saw me through my own losses and pain and saw through me to the vulnerable, needy girl hiding behind a wall of indifference and purple hair.
My hair has returned to a natural color, and Ive grown from an angry, aimless teen into a woman who finds expression in the written word and in pictures, a student who by a curious twist of fate works in a campus building that years ago served as Gays dorm.
I can only begin to list the things Gay has taught me over the past sixteen years: that I am lovable, trustworthy and capable; that strength and femininity arent mutually exclusive; that taking up space is not a crime; that life is both a choice and a process.
Since the day I turned sixteen, when Gay brought me and a truckload of teenage girls over the snowy Continental Divide to Chinook for Thanksgiving, the ranch has been a second home. When I go there, I find reprieve from worries about how I look and the things on my to-do list. I have a chance to just...breathe. Listen. Pay attention.
Gay started Dancing Moon Ranch in 1997 at the family farm, after years of providing contract social work services. Social works tenets--respect for human dignity, social justice and the importance of human relationships--motivate her.
Combining her loves of social work, farming and ranching, young people and her family is Gays gift to herself and the future--a future where families are strong and loving, and where girls grow into emotionally, physically and spiritually healthy women.
Everything I do is about possibility, she says. Ranching and kids and social work are all about possibilities. The premise of everything is based on the possibility of the harvest--and the absolute delight of the process.
Though the girls groan when Gay calls for an impromptu session around the kitchen table, its clear they relish the chance to learn and be heard.
Finish this sentence, Gay tells Jessie. I like being a victim because.... Dont think about it, just do it. Six times. She snaps her fingers. Come on, just spit it out.
I like being a victim because...victims get attention, Jessie says, her face taut. I like being a victim because...then I dont have to do anything.
What did you just learn? Gay asks.
Jessie thinks for a second, then laughs. That being a victim is pretty self-centered.
I imagine that, after nearly two decades of being a catalyst for growth and healing, Gay could probably muster a small army of people who are better for knowing her. Not that shes a candidate for sainthood. Shes chronically messy, perpetually tardy and prone to crankiness if the coffee isnt strong enough. Nor is Dancing Moon Ranch some kind of pastoral fantasy: It is also mud and manure, hard work and the horrors of pig castration.
But when I leave, Chinooks grain elevators ebbing away in the rearview mirror, my spirit is rejuvenated. Hurtling along the highway toward Missoula, accompanied only by the sounds of the wind and the engine, I think of Gays wisdom and the girls, reminders of how far Ive come and how far I still have to go. I drive on into my future, discoveries unfolding like miles.
Patia Stephens is a journalism student and a news assistant for University Relations.
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