St. Joseph woman documents struggles, transformations of boys in Missouri youth home

Friday, May 8, 2009 | 1:02 p.m. CDT

ST. JOSEPH — Janeen Burnham didn't want to go on the mission trip Brookdale Presbyterian Church was taking to a place in the Ozarks for troubled boys.

The St. Joseph woman just couldn't see that she would be able to serve any purpose there at Lives Under Construction Boys Ranch in Lampe, not having the skills for ranch work or the youth she assumed she would need to connect to the boys. But she did have bolts of material in her garage that a friend with an interior design business had recently offered her.

"I woke up one night, in the middle of the night thinking 'I need to go, and the material needs to go with me,'" she said.

The material made 60 drapery panels for staff housing at the ranch.

But as that work ended, an even bigger project was just beginning. Burnham had been moved by stories she had heard, stories of boys often from broken homes, just as she had been, who after months of exposure to the ranch's tough love and Christian environment had undergone transformations that seemed nothing less than miraculous. After she wrote a letter to ranch founder and director Ken Ortman expressing how much these stories had meant to her, he asked her to put the stories into a book.

"I didn't even hesitate," she says. "When he asked, I thought, What a phenomenal opportunity to do something like this for them.'"

Last November, Burnham, who has a degree in English and has always loved to write, self-published "Miracles of Restoration."

The book is the result of two years' labor, dozens of interviews and several trips back to the ranch, located about four and a half hours southwest of St. Joseph.

Her first day at the ranch as its story writer happened to be intake day for a boy known in her book as Sam, a 16 year old who had been in a mental institution since he was 3 and could not so much as tie his shoes or clip his fingernails.

Intake days don't happen often at the ranch. It can house only 20 boys at a time and keeps them as long as it takes them to complete the treatment program, which is generally 18 months to three years. Burnham latched onto the opportunity to open the book with what she had witnessed first hand of Sam's beginning at the ranch and then chose to close it with a chapter about the progress he had made a year later, going from a boy who had been heavily medicated and not made to do much of anything to one 40 pounds lighter who helped out around the ranch and seemed well-adjusted to life there.

And Sam's story is just the beginning. Burnham documented others that began with gang involvement and drug use, institutionalization and alienation, yet time and again their stories ended in giving boys their lives back through two basic principles: God can change lives in miraculous ways, and good work habits are important for building character, self-esteem and self-discipline.

Most of all, ranch staff members are trained "to never give up on a boy or on God's ability to change him," Burnham quotes Ortman in the book. " ... Our job is to search for the boy God created him to be." He adds that the "real rescue" comes in a boy's life "once he comes to the end of himself and realizes his need of the Savior. Then he is in fact rescued from all the anger, hatred of authority, rebellion and his own strong will."

Diane Dunavant, a friend of Burnham's, said after reading the book that what stood out most to her is the 92-percent success rate the ranch has of at-risk boys no longer getting into trouble with the law after they graduate from its program.

"They believe in these boys," she says. "And they want to spread this philosophy throughout America to inspire others to expand on it."

Spreading the ranch's vision of "changing the way America saves at-risk youth" is another purpose she had in writing her book, Burnham said. In the book, she said Ortman receives a thousand phone calls a year about boys in need of a treatment program like his.

"He wants to have others come and catch their vision and carry it out elsewhere," she says. " ... He just loves these kids and is amazed what God can do in their lives."



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