By Deborah Fox  / Staff Reporter
Spring weather graced the quiet rural Los Lunas community the morning Lovelace Rehabilitation Hospital made a special donation to El Ranchito de los Niños, a nonprofit alternative to foster care that keeps siblings together.
The hospital gave El Ranchito two shuttle vans, one with only 84,000 miles and both in great running order. The hospital could no longer use them because they lack the current safety standards for new wheelchair lifts.
El Ranchito de los Niños is working with Give Hope A Ride, a program of Casa Esperanza Endowment Foundation, to raise money for nonprofit organizations through car auctions.
When the hospital needed to upgrade the vans, Sharon Kelly, director of patient access, wanted them to go to good use somewhere else. Michael Dines, the Lovelace plant operations supervisor, suggested El Ranchito de los Niños, where his sister, Jessica Franco, works as the CPA.
"Lovelace is always looking for ways to partner with community organizations that help improve the health and well-being of the populations we serve," said Derrick Jones, CEO of Lovelace Rehabilitation Hospital. "This has been a great opportunity for us to do that."
El Ranchito de los Niños was founded in 2000, intentionally in an agricultural setting so there could be animals to help children transition, as well as learn skills they might not have received at home.
Some of the children have been abused, and some children have been starved, said Joe Barbour, executive director of El Ranchito de los Niños.
"When the children first come, if the animals don't have food or they don't have water, it's not part of their brain system, because they haven't had food or water," Barbour said. "So the animals help them deal with those issues. We go out every day, and it's a reminder every day that there is a living being that depends on them, and we perceive it as a corrective experience for the children."
The ranch receives no state or federal funding, and solely depends upon donations and private contributions.
"So every bite of food, every shirt on one of the children's back is a gift from somewhere, and every gift helps us to do the work with the children," said Barbour. "We are so appreciative to Lovelace that they would think of us this way."
The ranch is home to a big tabby cat, a huge Labrador retriever, goats, chickens, rabbits, a donkey and a horse. About 20 acres surround the home to protect the ranch from encroaching development.
"We rotate getting the eggs, and when the little ones go get the eggs, a lot of the eggs won't make it back to the kitchen," Barbour laughs.
The ranch home was specifically designed to allow brothers and sisters to grow up together, and shoulder whatever trials and tribulations the family is going through together.
There is a large dining room and community kitchen, and a large living room where the children can play, read or watch television together.
American Furniture donated a lot of the furnishings, and PNM donated the kitchen appliance, said Mary Spring, development manager. Albertsons in Los Lunas donates the food.
"When the kids come here, we assume they'll be here for about a year," Barbour said. "But the parents may be having issues that are going to take longer than a year."
The average stay is about seven years, and currently there are nine children living at El Ranchito, ranging in age from 18 months to 16 years old.
"It's always our hope that the children are able to return to their families," Barbour said. "We don't even pretend to be a better living situation than being with your mom and dad."
The organization doesn't have an adversarial relationship with the parents, because staff and parents are genuinely working toward the same goal.
Parents or grandparents can come and take the children if they wanted to. Parents bring the children to El Ranchito voluntarily, the children are not court ordered.
As soon as the parents are set up and ready to have their children, the El Ranchito staff are happy to see them reunited.
"It's interesting, raising a child for seven years, watch them go out that front door and never look back," Barbour said. "As much as we love them, as much as they love us, they're with mom. It's the way it's supposed to be."
Lovelace is committed to the Los Lunas community, and hopes to be of serve in other ways, Jones said.
"We look for this to be a foreshadowing of things to come for this community and the Lovelace partnership," Jones said. "We'll certainly be looking for other ways to serve this community."
For information or to donate to El Ranchito de los Ranchito, call Mary Spring, the development manager at 565-4470.