Boarding school ‘builds boys’ through agriculture
By CRAIG SHIRK
For Acres of SW Ohio
ST. PARIS – Operation Rebirth, a boarding school and working farm for troubled teen boys, has been helping families through farming since 1980. Its motto reads, “It’s better to build boys than to mend men.”
The school opened its doors in downtown Dayton in 1976 and later moved to a 17-acre field north of St. Paris.
“We quickly found that the (city) environment wasn’t conducive to helping boys change. It just didn’t work,” said current Director Sam Ronicker. “We bought this property (near St. Paris) around 1980 and it has had an agricultural theme ever since.”
Building character in troubled boys has been the mission of the school since its beginning, starting with the efforts of founder and Director Emeritus James Brian of Shelby County.
After more than 30 years under Brian’s leadership, Ronicker and his wife, Teresa, accepted the roles of executive directors in 2009.
“Most of the boys here have only played video games and watched TV … We have one boy who’s watched every gory movie ever made, but when he cuts a chicken’s head off he throws up,” said Ronicker. “There’s a reality to it.
“But this is a lot more fun. It’s real. It’s not a video game. It’s not television. There is no instant gratification. You have to wait, so it really creates patience,” he said.
The majority of each student’s diet is planted, harvested, processed or prepared in some way by his own hands. The boys also earn a profit from tending to chickens and selling their eggs.
The garden is full of corn, peas, green beans, tomatoes and peppers, any vegetable that can be stored easily. The boys also take care of and sell pigs, however, livestock profits have been hard to come by lately.
“We really are poor farmers,” Ronicker said laughing. “The price of feed is so high, we don’t make any money on the livestock. But, what we don’t eat, we will sell.”
The boys help butcher livestock and process all meat products consumed on the farm. Ronicker said there’s value in knowing where the cows and chickens have been and what exactly they’ve eaten and breathed. In addition, the garden is void of potentially harmful chemicals.
The boys are required to take equestrian class, starting with shoveling horse manure, grooming the horses, saddling them, cleaning their stalls and finally learning to ride them. All five full-time staff members are experienced in horseback riding and the farm currently has two horses.
Bailing hay for local farmers and cutting wood for the dorm furnace are other tasks students undertake. They learn skilled trades such as welding, woodworking, pottery, stained-glass crafting and blacksmith shop.
These trades are taught by both full– and part-time instructors. Some youngsters discover talents and passions they never knew they had.
“I realized I was good at it and that it came easier,” said a 14-year-old student about his woodworking class.
The boy proudly displayed a recent woodcarving project, an illustration of a galloping horse. He is finishing a gift for his mother, a coat rack made of walnut that received rave reviews from his instructors.
He spoke of returning home, earning a diploma, a collegiate scholarship and starting his own woodshop. What’s changed most, he said, is his “anger, respect, maturity and cooperation.”
“When I was back in public schools, I was getting Cs, Ds and Fs,” he said. “Here I’m getting As, Bs, and Cs. I haven’t had an F in over a year.”
Each day starts at 6 a.m. with cleaning dorm rooms, devotions and breakfast. Classes are from 8 a.m. to about 2 p.m. The remainder of the day consists of farm chores and ends with bedtime at 8 p.m. Meals are served with all students around the table.
“We focus on three things here: respect, relationship and responsibility, and the agricultural aspect is all about responsibility,” said Ronicker.
The school currently is operating at a capacity eight students, including boys ranging in age from 13 to 17. The program has welcomed boys from Kentucky, Indiana, Michigan and Illinois, but most originate from southwest Ohio.
“Usually a boy comes to us around the junior high age … and he usually stays with us about two years,” Ronicker said. “The goal is to get him back to his family and back to mainstream education.”
The school receives no public funding. Instead, it is supported by dozens of regular donors and more than 100 occasional donors including churches, friends and family. The school also is supported through the Community Foundation of Shelby County, which manages the school’s endowment fund.
Ronicker and his staff are proud of their growing network of Facebook followers. The school’s Facebook page has amassed 201 friends and many are alumni.
“It’s an amazing network that God has created,” said Ronicker. “There are 1,400 or 1,500 people around the state, around the country really, who pray for us and care for us.”
Ronicker touts the school’s success rate as 100 percent for those who complete the program. The director says it’s a challenge to bring back alumni for honorary visits because of their new-found work ethic and devotion to their jobs.
“Sorry, I have to work,’” Ronicker said he often hears.
OR’s annual operating budget is approximately $220,000, but rising costs will require additional income of about $5,000 to $10,000. Currently, the school is long over-due for hay to feed its livestock.
What few may know, said Ronicker, is that the program is year-round and requires its students to return home for roughly one-third of the year during breaks. Parents are required to play an active role in their children’s success and must pick them up during those breaks.
A common misconception is that the school receives court-ordered juveniles, which is not the case, said Ronicker.
A handful of medical professionals and several churches can make referrals to OR. Dr. Kevin Horvath, a pediatrician practicing in Tipp City, makes a significant number of them.
OR is a non-denominational school, though students attend services at the Urbana First United Methodist Church and participate in youth events there.
Roger Phipps, who has been with the school for 35 years, is a full-time instructor and assistant director who handles the bulk of the academic tutoring. Meanwhile, residential instructors Emilio and Shelley live in the dormitory with their three children.
The students are supervised by at least two staff members at all times. Besides the five full-time workers, the school gets help from 10 weekly volunteers and tutors as well as dozens of guest speakers and occasional volunteers.
Ronicker said the school’s strict regimen has become a way of life for the staff.
“We tell ourselves, ‘We’re just living our lives and the boys are here for the ride.’”
(Craig Shirk is a writer for the Urbana Daily Citizen.)