As the bleachers next to the arena are raised at Welcome Home Ranch, it signals the beginning of not only a new era for the farm at Val Vista Drive and Hunt Highway, but a new beginning for the long-standing East Valley tradition that is Gilbert Days.
Fittingly, the move to Welcome Home Ranch does just that — welcoming the popular rodeo portion of Gilbert days back into Gilbert itself.
The announcement in spring this ranch would be the event’s new home also coincides with a renewal for the ranch, too. The facility was sold via short sale in June 2012 to the John Volken Foundation.
The ranch, formerly known as Marley Farms, still houses an equestrian boarding facility and on-site feed store.
While the petting zoo is gone, the arenas in place are prime for equestrian events and need little adaptation for other gatherings — like the upcoming November Gilbert Days rodeo.
“We’re thrilled to see Gilbert Days come back to Gilbert,” said Nicole Bonilla, a Welcome Home Ranch board member. “Gilbert Days brings families and neighbors together and serves the community.”
The large community event ties perfectly into Welcome Home’s new purpose — to be a positive force the community while also teaching life skills to young men, many of whom are recovering addicts, she said.
“They’re not called clients or patients,” said Carson Brown, Welcome Home Ranch vice chairman. “They are a family and they call each other brother.”
Brown is referring to students enrolled in the ranch’s “Welcome Home Life Skills Academy.” The mission of the new academy is more than a rehabilitation facility — and definitely not a detox facility or a halfway house, Brown said, emphasizing the “life skills” portion of the Academy’s mission.
Welcome Home boasts a no-tolerance policy for drugs and alcohol and uses a peer-to-peer counseling format.
“They learn how to work, how to live, and, for the first time for many of them, how to solve problems in life,” Brown said.
The farm houses about 100 horses and two llamas. The students also take care of the two Berkshire pigs, the two goats with six kids, 150 chickens and four turkeys.
All of the young men will become both a caretaker and an expert on their assigned animal, including milking the goats and collecting the chicken and turkey eggs.
“We use ‘each one, teach one’,” said Gavin Wharton, 23, a student in the program. “We get on-the-job training for life. It’s a hybrid between a men’s finishing school and a military camp.”
As more young men arrive at the ranch, they’ll learn from a “brother” who came there before them. But the young men learn more than tangible skills, they also learn the value of hard work, responsibility and patience, Wharton said.
“Everything we do we do with a purpose,” Wharton said, who has been part of the program for 19 months.
A stay at the ranch requires a two-year commitment, something that addicts often commit to if they’re not ready for it, said program director Josh Smith, 22.
“You don’t come in if you don’t stay for a minimum of two years or until you graduate from the program,” explained Welcome Home Ranch board chairman Don Stapley.
“As an addict, you can’t even think more than one day at a time,” Smith said. “It takes a lot to commit to two years.”
If you don’t want to recover, it’s easy to know what to say to a counselor, Smith added. But with peer mentors and counseling, students are met head-on by others who know and have used the same tactics.
“I know what to say, but with another addict, you can’t ‘con a con,’” Smith said.
It also reminds them of where they’ve come from and how far they’ve come.
“You’re always moving forward,” he said. “As time goes on and new guys come in, it reminds you of where you where you were or worse.”
Since the farm’s purchase, they’ve completely remodeled the house that used to shelter the dogs, all the way down to the studs; neighbors have helped fix the irrigation system and plant the fields; and the men have built the “Taj Majal” of chicken coops.
But that’s just the beginning of the plans for the farm. Eventually, they hope to have about 30 students at the facility, learning and teaching one another.
Perhaps one of Welcome Home’s best success stories comes from its young program director.
“I came from a regular family,” Smith said.
In high school he started to smoke marijuana, like many young people.
“I took some business classes in high school and I realized that if I sold weed, I could smoke for free,” he said.
Eventually, it led to selling more than pot — including cocaine and ecstasy.
“Crime is just a part of the life,” he said. “Then I started using heroin, injecting it intravenously. And then I started losing everything, my money and my relationships.”
It was after the deaths of a couple friends to overdose, and after another close friend went to prison, that Smith realized that he needed to change his life, .
Smith first ended up in rehab on Feb. 28, 2010.
After moving in with his grandparents following a 45-day rehab program, he found himself slipping back into his old ways.
His grandmother’s best friend since childhood is Brown’s mother and she suggested the Welcome Home program.
“I knew I needed to be there,” he said of Welcome Home. “Two years? I said that’s not long enough, give me three.”
After successfully completing the program, he moved back to Utah.
“He started setting sales records at Kohl’s,” Stapley said. “He was hand-picked by John (Volken) to lead the program here.”
The John Volken Foundation, a non-profit, which operates the ranch, has two established similar programs in Seattle and Vancouver. It was founded by the Canadian entrepreneur, John Volken, a German immigrant who created his wealth from a chain of furniture stores in the Pacific Northwest.
An orphan himself in Germany as a child, after selling his business, he put nearly all his fortune into the foundation which also supports a large number of orphanages in Africa, as well as the Welcome Home program.
For more information about the program, visit welcomehomeranch.com.