Foundation helps connect suffering teens with employment, accountability, and nature
Ben McVey struggled with mental health as an adolescent and teen, specifically bipolar disorder. Historically medical professionals referred to it as “manic depression”. But in recent years as understanding has developed, bipolar disorder has been understood to be its own disorder. Bipolar individuals experience intense depressive suffering followed by abnormally high moods. Each “wave” can last for days or weeks at a time and makes treatment a challenge. At the time, his parents struggled to find the right balance of treatment. “Somewhat out of desperation we experimented by sending him to a ranch in Wyoming for the summer,” says Ben’s father, Brose McVey.
The experience worked so well the younger McVey spent eighteen months in Wyoming. There was nothing particularly special about the ranch. It held no therapeutic designation or specialized staff. It just happened to be one the family knew about where he could work with animals, have responsibilities, do some manual labor outdoors in the sunshine and clean air, and generally reconnect with life.
When McVey returned to Indiana he was rejuvenated and motivated after 18 months in Wyoming. Back at home he finished high school, started taking night classes, and found employment. But a negative influence in his social circle connected him to new synthetic drugs, “And we lost him over it,” recalls his father. Ben McVey died in 2015 at the age of twenty-four.
After his death, the family remembered the “amazing way” the experience in Wyoming affected Ben’s life. In 2015, the family helped start the Ben’s Ranch Foundation as a means to help other young people experience the same kind of benefits Ben enjoyed. The Foundation accepted their first “intern” in 2018.
The Foundation is designed to offer teens around 14-19 suffering from mental health issues a way to connect with nature, animals, responsibility, and all the benefits Ben enjoyed in Wyoming but here in Indiana. Currently, the program connects teens in central Indiana with regional ranches, farms, and nature sanctuaries.
But as McVey explains, “That leaves a huge percentage of teens that are a good fit. So many of our kids are walking around with some form of depression.” Not considering the added social strain caused by COVID-19, 1-5 teens struggle with some kind of clinically significant mental health situation.
The Foundation’s program is lean, relying entirely on private volunteers and donations, though some public programs are starting to take note of the Foundation’s work. “There’s an application fee and a weekly fee for those accepted in the program”, says McVey. “But on the same application they can apply for a discount or waiver using a common sliding scale.” Using standard federal formulas for sliding scale payments, many families pay only a small fee or none at all.
The Foundation accepts teens and connects them with the right mix of ranches, livestock farms, equine therapy facilities, and other agricultural operations. Once connected, teens work with a host doing a variety of jobs like any other employee, usually earning minimum wage to $10 an hour. “All of our host-employers pay the teen interns directly and where necessary we make grants to the employers to offset all or part of the cost of their wages,” says McVey.
In April 2021, the Foundation announced a new partnership with Fishers-based Conner Prairie. Morning Dove Therapeutic Riding in Zionsville, Carmel Equestrian Center, and Strides to Success in Plainfield are three major partners that represent settings with horses or other livestock requiring lots of chores, including care for livestock, maintenance, and similar duties.
Many other smaller operations that McVey describes as “backyard family farms” serve as ideal host-employers for teens, too.
Perhaps most importantly, a job is created giving the benefits of income, responsibility, practical life skills, and on-the-job training to a young person who might otherwise have never found success in a “typical” retail, food service, or other low-skill job. “Having the job helps avoid the stigma of counseling and ‘boys camps’,” says McVey. “When we send our kids out to these farms and stables, there’s no connotation of illness. They’re building skills, self-esteem, and accountability to those employers.”
Referrals are starting to come in from various referral sources. Those sources include parents, mental health professionals, school counselors, and community agencies such as county Youth Assistance Programs.
“We want to help as many kids as we can,” says McVey. The Indianapolis Association of Health Underwriters has entered into a new partnership agreement with the Foundation to help monetarily and with volunteers where possible. The Foundation will also be featured prominently with our annual Golf Outing this June.
The group also collects outcome and survey data from the teens, parents, and employers. No formal outcomes report has been published yet, but with help from advisors at Purdue University, the team is reviewing and updating their outcomes data collection process.
“I will say anecdotally,” McVey adds, “It looks like about 80% of our kids are seeing a significant positive impact,” as measured by school performance, attendance, and self-reported feedback. “Some in a very short time,” he adds. “It’s no great secret once you see the contrast in the isolation they were in and then coming out into the world.”
The Foundation plans to have an outcomes report finalized soon. In the meantime, the group continues to connect kids with additional employer hosts around central Indiana. As other sources of funding become available and new host-employers and partnerships form, McVey says plans and underway to expand statewide.
Today, McVey says the most critical need is volunteers. A volunteer application and additional details are available online at bensranch.com.