By Nita Horn
After a title like this one, I know what a lot of you are probably thinking—that I’m about to share some touching reminiscence from my past that will give my audience a case of the warm-fuzzies.
Not exactly. This is a jaunt down a different Memory Lane—the official one with a gravel road and everything—and it’s not about me. It’s about the camper kids.
Some of what I’m about to impress upon you might tug at a heartstring or two, but please understand that the purpose of this article is not to make anyone sad. It’s actually a praise report, so bear with me and keep reading.
By now, any of our regular readers would be familiar with the fact that we, here at Whispering Ponies Ranch (WPR), have the Royal Family Kids (RFK) out annually for summer camps. These camps run back to back throughout the majority of the summer, keeping our staff incredibly busy. The precious children that we minister to during these times are wards of the state, currently residents of foster homes.
As you can well imagine, these young people have been through a lot by the time they arrive at our facilities: Most have endured various layers of psychological, emotional, mental, physical, and possibly sexual abuse; and/or supreme neglect; and/or exposure to environments involving staggering substance abuse by guardians in the home; and all of them have been taken away from their biological parents. Though there are absolutely sincere and caring foster parents in the system, others are in it for the wrong reasons, and perpetuate the abuse of the child’s past (possibly even introducing a new form of abuse). Unfortunately, this list is the tip of the iceberg. Some of the horrors that have been discreetly shared with some of our chief staff (shared preventatively, that is—to avoid inadvertently saying or doing something that might trigger a child during their stay at WPR) has been so unthinkable, so gnarly, that we have personally carried these burdens home, cried, and at times even lost sleep. This is not to say that all we perceive is based on the “heads up” information we are given by the leaders of RFK. Simply watching how the adolescent interacts with those around him or her can indicate to the careful observer that a happy childhood has been robbed from someone who has never done a thing to deserve such a travesty.
What should be memories of making mud pies, watching Saturday morning cartoons, snuggling grandparents on a porch swing, racing to the presents on Christmas morning—even something as simple as having a birthday party—has all been taken from them. (Many RFK kids have their first and only birthday party as a giant group together here at summer camp.) In their place are memories of the abuse or neglect atrocities already mentioned, followed by removal from their homes, and then years of attempting to connect with new families, being told quite suddenly that they are being relocated, and throwing all their belongings and clothes into a garbage bag (literally; most of these kids don’t own luggage, despite how often they move, so they live with the psychologically pejorative insinuation that a trash bag is what they’re worth). From there, they repeatedly land at new addresses with unfamiliar faces over and over again until they get old enough to graduate the system and, regrettably, begin life entirely on their own.
If it’s true what psych experts say about child emotional development and familial ties, then a ministry like WPR—which exists for the sole purposes of reaching out to these kids, specifically, in hopes to leave an impact on their life down the road—is crucial in the life of a little girl or boy. The week they spend here is marked by painting and riding our therapeutic miniature horses, climbing rock walls, eating fun kid foods, getting presents and desserts, having parties, writing and receiving letters from counselors (as well as our talkative, four-legged friends who can “hoof” a personalized note with the best of them), and, among other things, learning to connect with counselors who have been specially trained in bonding appropriately with them in their situation. Most importantly, however, hurting children are daily given the life-changing Gospel message of a God who loves each of them so much that He never forgets a birthday; He travels with them no matter what home they are taken to with their garbage bag in the middle of the night; He’s the supreme Counselor who would never be above sharing a high-five over even the smallest of accomplishments; and He also happened to have sent His only Son so that these itty bitty kiddos could grow up knowing they would graduate out of this earthly, human system and into the heavenly one with the sound of trumpets, angels singing, and eternal friendship with God and the saints.
For countless campers, WPR is the stamping, the permanent imprinting in one’s memory, of a beautiful, sunny, happy week filled with laughter that bubbles up from the heart of a truly happy child—
…A child like little Suzie.
One of the events carried out toward the end of camp is a little hard to write about. And not because it’s sad, but because it’s touching…cathartic even. Putting together this article is difficult to get through with dry eyes. What a beautiful and therapeutic idea, this planting of the fruit tree ceremony just before the kids leave at the end of the week.
A hole is dug in the ground just a few feet off of the gravel-road entrance to the camp facility where the buses come in and out. The children are then instructed to write down some of their memories on a piece of paper. These recollections can be good, bad, happy, sad…whatever they want to give to God as seeds in prayer, as these memories represent some of the most intimate, desperate, and/or joyful thoughts of that child. When they are finished, the papers are placed in the hole in the ground, atop which a fruit tree seedling is placed. The soil is filled in around the root, trapping the massive collection of children’s documented thoughts under a new piece of life that will grow to produce good, edible fruit.
The kids are not restricted in the memories they are allowed to write about, so, understandably, there are those who choose to record their pain. For these beautiful souls, the ceremony is one of acknowledging past hurt, accepting that it was never their fault, letting it go…and letting it heal. The fruit tree represents “beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that [these sweet children] might [forevermore] be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he might be glorified” (Isaiah 61:3).
Victory…when victory is otherwise nowhere to be found.
For other young ones, the ceremony is a time to plant, and later harvest, the joyful memories made at WPR: driving their own miniature horse cart, ringing the bell at the top of a newly-conquered rock wall, high-fiving that counselor after hitting the target at archery, opening their first birthday present ever, making a four-legged friend who nuzzles and loves without any human-derived pretenses…or maybe taking a stroll down the lane of planted fruit trees planted by those whose lives were touched in the years before. When this is the response, we are reminded of Jesus’ own words: “Ye shall know them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:16).
Think for a moment about the process of tree growth. Consider the soil, the nutrients from the ground, the hands that have planted it, and the years that go by as it seasonally bears the good fruit that was intended from its inception as a seed. Here at WPR, our fruit trees simply cannot grow and produce anything without first passing its roots through the memories of the lives who have been changed here by the Gospel of Christ, absorbing the tears, the laughter, and the hope of these priceless kids into its branches. Then, and only then, can fruit be born from what we have planted.
This ceremony is more than an adjustment to the WPR landscape for little ones to participate on a sunny day before they leave on the busses. It’s the planting of a seed, both literally and symbolically, in a young person’s life that not only contributes to a moment of growth in that day, but that which plants a memory—something that stands out from the routine of a foster child’s life—that bears a good fruit in them later on.
Such was the case with Suzie. I will never, as long as I live, forget her testimony.
As one of the camps were getting ready to leave and the last bit of soil was shoveled in on the seedling, Suzie approached her counselor and floored her with a tearjerker, saying: “You see that tree at the end of the lane?” She pointed at the first tree that had ever been planted here. “See the next one?” She angled her finger over to the tree that had been put in the ground the following year. “And that one,” she gestured the third, “and this one?” Her emphasis was slow and reflective, taking in each tree as its own entity to be acknowledged. “I have been here for every one of them. I have buried my memories under all of them.”
“Really?” the counselor asked, glancing at the trees planted in former years, wondering about what memories this small girl could have written down in the span of multiple summers.
“Yep.” Suzie paused and looked back. She was aging out of the camping system, graduating from the RFK as they only take campers up to a certain age, and she needed to have someone else as a witness to her life—not believing that she would be back. It has been said that marriage is to provide a witness of life, and it was in this moment that Suzie needed to not only reflect on her story, but share it with a witness. “These four trees are my entire childhood. My whole life is planted in and through them.”
As her words continued to permeate my thoughts, I realized she has roots here…literally. Three of the ceremonies she had participated in had already produced a visual of Christ’s words manifested in her life, linking her forever to the positive message of Jesus Christ. For Suzie, for this one small child whom the Creator loves, this row of trees wasn’t just a ritual with a shovel and water, it was her happy place. It was her lifeline: the summation of all things good and true in her life, right here, at a summer camp built to minister to her eternal soul with the Gospel.
A moment later, I got an idea that I was surprised hadn’t hit me before with the same thrust: Memory Lane. This currently unnamed road, lined with trees otherwise so unremarkable from the outside, WILL be given an official road sign, so that the story of children like Suzie will be told forever. From now on, anyone that visits our land will be subject to a jaunt down Memory Lane, and the testimony of what lies beneath—and within—these fruits.
And as for Suzie, we have every reason to believe that she’ll be back… See, just this summer, I saw one of our earliest campers who graduated RFK our first summer come back this year as a junior counselor for the younger generation. This is, of course, on top of the fact that we are bringing in our first “Teen’s Reach” camp in a couple weeks from now that will focus on ministering to those who have aged out of RFK but still need the healing we provide here. And you can bet that, in a follow-up article from me, you will be hearing about the fruit that is planted for them as well. Something tells me Suzie will be back to build, and help others build, more glorious memories here, whether she knows that yet or not.
But don’t forget, for many of you readers, the fruit is not just what the children have planted. It’s what you have planted. To every single person who has ever supported Whispering Ponies Ranch with their finances and their prayer (especially their prayer!), I would like to say thank you.
Thank you for giving to these children. Better yet, thank you for giving straight to the Maker of these children. You are planting a seed, literally.
When Jesus was instructing the disciples in Matthew 7:16, He was making the statement that a person can be religious, they can quote Scripture and wear holy robes, they can speak in gentle tones and have the grandest smile, but it is only by what their life produces that they will be recognized as a follower of Christ. The Apostle Paul made a similar statement in the “love chapter” of 1 Corinthians (13:1), stating that we can speak with a language so beautiful it would be thought to belong to the angels, but if we don’t produce a fruit with our lives that reflects a genuine, Christ-like love to those in need just like these children, anything we say will result in a sound as offensive and chaotic as a cymbal clanging in the ears of its hearers.
So, I say this again: Thank you for being known by the fruit that you produce with your life, and not just your words.
AND IF YOU HAVEN’T YET…please consider helping this unique, life-changing ministry that is seeing children saved and healed from human trafficking and other abuses and pray about partnering with us to continue the work God is doing on this land. You can join us by becoming a member of the VIP Founders Group or by Sponsoring a Pony.
To learn more about sponsoring a pony and/or to join the VIP Founders Group, please visit these two websites: