Home on the range: Ben’s Ranch supports troubled teens through farm, ranch life

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By Mark Ambrogi

Brose McVey knows what spending time on a ranch with horses meant for his late son.

The Carmel resident wants other teenagers with mental health issues to have that opportunity, too, so he has created Ben’s Ranch Foundation. The nonprofit finds families on ranches or farms to host those teens for a summer or longer.

Ben McVey was diagnosed with bipolar disorder when he was 14.

“He and I shared that interest in horses at a pretty early age,” McVey said. “As this disease started to show itself, it became one of the few refuges where he could feel some comfort and get away from the stress of real life and enjoy it. Eventually, that spawned the idea when things got bad to take him out to a ranch at least for a summer.”

Shortly after his junior year ended at Midwest Academy, which hadn’t gone well, McVey made a decision to take Ben to the Cayuse Ranch in Wyoming for the summer. Ben ended up staying 18 months. There Ben learned how to gentle mustang colts off the range.

“It became an amazingly effective therapy to reboot and reset his self-esteem, his focus and mindset and got him back on track to get out of bed and try to have a life,” McVey said.

McVey said there were no counselors or doctors in sight.

“It was just nature and sunshine, hard work, an aching back, horses and chores,” McVey said.

That’s when he began forming the idea to do this for other kids, McVey said.

Ben died of an accidental drug overdose at age 24 in April 2015. However, McVey said he believed his son was on the right track until that fatal mistake.

“He had gotten his GED. He was taking classes at a community college and working,” McVey said. “He had his own apartment. We credit that time (on the ranch) because he was headed to a very difficult place in the years before. Kids that struggle with these kinds of conditions tend to medicate with drugs and alcohol. Even if (the drug) is more recreational, these drugs are so lethal. We don’t know the circumstance, but his life was coming along. When we lost him, that was the catalyst to do this for others.”

McVey said he has spent an incredible amount of time on the foundation.

“It’s one way for me to feel like I’m doing something positive out of a tragic situation,” McVey said. “It’s a real passion because of our loss, because going through it as a parent I just felt so helpless. I counted the minutes until something terrible happened, and it finally did. But that was random, and we know he got a second lease on life from that and we want to give it to other kids.”

McVey said teens will be placed for the first time this summer.

“The big push now is to find those families with a big heart that want to do that,” McVey said of hosting the teens.

Horses don’t have to be part of the equation. It could be a dairy farm, for instance. McVey said the key is to have a nurturing atmosphere with a diverse number of activities and hopefully some livestock to engage the teens.

“What’s powerful is the kids feel less stigmatized and less self-conscious when they are thrown in with a family and working chores instead of something that feels like an institution and has counselors in groups, which is fine for the right situations,” said McVey, a principal at Heartland Strategic Partners. “For many of these kids, that reinforces the idea of not fitting in. We want them to know what it’s like to work with a horse or fix a broken farm implement, dig a fence post hole or get themselves hot, sweaty and sunburned baling hay.”

Ben had two younger brothers, J.D. and Harry. McVey said Ben’s mother, Carol Anne Kemper of Carmel, is supportive of the foundation.

Dr. Jennifer Sloan, a psychiatrist, is serving as the clinical director of the foundation.

Dr. Sara Davis, a psychologist in Westfield, consults with the foundation. She leads Camp Organic, an after-school program at a farm.

“I think Ben’s Ranch is important because it builds on our Camp Organic program and gives a really viable option for kids that need something that is completely different that builds fundamental skills for life and doesn’t just treat them like they are sick,” she said. “When you have a life skill, you have genuine self-esteem and the ability to go out and earn income.”

Bucks for Bucks

To raise awareness about the foundation and to raise funds for more teens to participate, McVey will participate in the Colt Starting Challenge at the Hoosier Horse Fair April 1-2 at the Indiana State Fairgrounds. The event starts at 10 a.m. April 1. McVey and three other professional horsemen will train a green horse in only a few hours and then attempt to ride it through an obstacle course.

McVey is seeking pledges based on how he fares. He also is seeking direct donations.

For more, visit bensranch.org.

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