Ben and Jamie Richey would hardly recognize the place that’s named in their honor, the place that started in 1947 on 350 acres of land on the outskirts of Abilene.
Fast-forward to 2023 and the Ben Richey Boys Ranch & Family Program is hardly ranchland anymore and it certainly isn’t on the outskirts of Abilene. Instead, it has downsized to 80 acres and expanded its services. It is nestled off Treadaway Boulevard on Ben Richey Drive in bustling southeast Abilene. One thing hasn’t changed as the ranch celebrates its 75th anniversary. A plaque on the front of the office states the ranch’s philosophy then and now:
“No person stands so tall as when they stoop to help a child”
The plaque is dated Aug. 9, 1997, the year the new office building opened. A year earlier, Kerry Fortune had been named president of the ranch, the position he still holds. Since his hiring, Fortune has led the ranch through three major changes. The first one came in 1997 when the ranch changed its admission policy.
Seasons of Change
Previously, the ranch took boys who were in the juvenile justice system, boys who had been removed from their home by Child Protective Services, and private placements. Since 1997, boys, ages 6 to 14, have been accepted by private placement only. The ranch is still licensed by the state, even though it doesn’t take boys placed through state agencies. The loss of state placement meant a loss of funding from state and federal sources. It took several years to offset the loss, Fortune said, but by 2001, the finances were back on an even keel.
“It’s been the best move we’ve made,” Fortune said.
The ranch opened Aug. 1, 1947, on land donated by the city. The original ranch extended all the way to Kirby Lake, where horses and cattle drank their fill. Today, the ranch is situated on 80 of the original acres and still has a horse program but no cattle.
A second major change came in 2004 when the ranch added a campus located four miles south of Albany. The rural setting allows the boys to raise animals that they show in FFA and 4-H programs. The primary reason the Albany campus was added, Fortune said, was to house boys who needed a smaller setting. They are more likely to be able to play on sports teams and to join clubs at school.
“It just gives our kids more opportunity,” Fortune said.
The third major change Fortune has overseen is the addition of a family care program, which opened in 2009. Two group homes allow for private bedrooms and bathrooms for single mothers and their children, with communal dining and living areas. The ranch will always care for individual boys, Fortune said, but the trend is toward family care.
“It’s probably the fastest growing program in the state of Texas,” he said.
Besides providing a safe, pleasant home for the single mothers and their children, the family care program also teaches the moms life skills such as managing a family budget, holding down a job, and living a structured life. Each family is required to do its own housekeeping, grocery shopping, meal preparation, and cleanup. Three supervisors oversee the family care program.
“We’re trying to teach them how to take care of a home,” Fortune said.
When the mothers prove they can manage a family, they are eligible to move into one of 10 private houses on the campus. Those houses were constructed between 2018 and 2022, with some of the boys getting paid to help with construction.
Mothers are eligible to stay in the homes until the last of their children graduates from high school. The two group homes can house up to four single moms each and their children. Between the group homes and 10 houses, a total of 18 moms and their children can be accommodated. A blurb about the Family Care Program on the ranch’s website explains why it is important.
“It is the goal of the Family Program that when the mother leaves our program, she is able to support herself and her child(ren) without help from someone else.”
Besides the residences for the Family Care Program, the Abilene campus currently has one home for six individual boys. The Albany campus can house 12 boys but currently six live there. Married couples serve as house parents in both Albany and Abilene.
April 20 was the last day for Abilene house parents, John and Peggy Day, who are retiring. They spent one year at Albany and nine years in Abilene. Telling the boys that they were retiring was hard, Peggy said.
“We just told them it was time,” she said. “We have very mixed emotions about it.”
Prior to becoming house parents, the couple raised two children of their own. Peggy was a schoolteacher for 32 years, so taking care of children wasn’t foreign to her. John described how the family created their own holiday traditions and how they always sat down together as a family for meals.
It was John’s job to drive the boys to Anson, where they attend school. Each day begins with breakfast and a devotion before heading out. Being house parents involved learning to “duck and roll” with situations as they arose, John said. The couple has an RV and plans to travel and spend time with grandchildren in their retirement. They will make their home in Abilene–not far from their boys.
“This is our ranch family,” Peggy said.
Funds for the Boys
Maintaining the Ben Richey Boys Ranch & Family Program takes a dedicated staff and a lot of money. Fundraising is always on everyone’s mind. Donors from all over the state provide the funding, said Nancy Roberts, vice president for donor relations.
“When we have a need,” she said, “we seem to always have someone who is willing to help out.”
For years, the Chili Super Bowl, held in Buffalo Gap over Labor Day weekend, was the ranch’s biggest fundraiser. Now, the ranch benefits from various events, including the following:
Outlaws and Legends Music Festival in March
Clay Break Classic in May
Abilene Music Awards in June
Long Ear Benefit Trail Ride in October
Chili Super Bowl over Labor Day Weekend
This year, the Outlaws & Legends Music Festival, with Willie Nelson as the headliner, netted $115,000 for the Boys Ranch.
“That’s the largest gift so far from it,” Fortune said.
The money it takes today to operate Ben Richey Boys Ranch & Family Program would have been staggering to Ben and Jamie Richey when they opened the doors to the ranch on Aug. 1, 1947. Ben was serving on the Abilene City Council and was involved with a youth boxing program and the Boys Scouts.
In 1945, Richey talked to the city about his idea for a Boys Ranch to take care of boys who were falling through the cracks. The city agreed to donate the land. In 1946, the Optimists International started an Abilene club and agreed to sponsor the Abilene Boys Ranch. With the help of the Optimists International, a loan of $2,400 was granted to move an old barracks to the ranch from Camp Barkeley, a World War II Army camp located southwest of Abilene, and to pay a couple to live there. Soon, the Richeys and Jamie’s brother, Edwin Yeager, moved to the ranch.
Honoring the Richeys
Ben Richey died in 1970 on the ranch. Jamie died in 1986 and two years later, the Abilene Boys Ranch was renamed to honor its founder.
Much has changed at the ranch but much has stayed the same. The boys still get to live in a family setting with loving house parents. They attend church together and support each other at sporting and school events. When they leave, they are supported through college, trade school, or military service.
“They can walk out of college and not owe a dime,” Fortune said.
The ranch began celebrating its 75th anniversary with a brunch at Perini Ranch Steakhouse in September 2022. A Southern Gospel group performed and the first boy placed at the ranch, Curtis Davis, spoke about his experiences. An ex-rancher reunion was scheduled for June 3, 2023.
Today, just like in 1947, the ranch is a place that provides a loving environment for boys in need of a safe place to live and grow. They learn a work ethic and what it means to live alongside others. Some come from tough backgrounds and others come from families who no longer can support them. As Nancy Roberts, vice president for donor relations, pointed out, sometimes the public perceives the kids as “bad,” but in reality they are just young boys in need of a helping hand.
“We’ve got great kids,” she said. “They just haven’t been in a good situation.”
By Loretta Fulton
Photos By Shayli Anne Photography