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St. Jude’s warms cynic on cold night

I like to think of myself as a tough, cynical journalist.

You know the kind. They are seen in movies chasing a lead, slaving away at the keyboard at all hours of the day and night, downing a stiff drink and stopping the presses for late-breaking news. For the most part, I could live up to all of that.

I’m always on alert for something that could be a story. I thrive on big news stories and special events that involve the entire newspaper’s staff. Deadlines get my adrenaline pumping.

I spend way too many hours at the office working. (If you don’t believe me, just ask my family.) My fingers have calluses from constant typing.

I have a stiff drink nearly every day — a smoothie in the morning that is so thick my straw stands up straight.

I have even been fortunate enough to stop the presses — once.

But the truth is — if I have to admit it — I’m a softie. That’s right. I may have a tough exterior but on the inside I’m nothing but mush.

This was especially evident Saturday evening when I visited St. Jude’s Ranch for Children. I went there after Santa’s Electric Light Parade expecting to make a quick visit, snap a photo for our holiday photo page (see page 6) and return to the warm, safe confines of my humble abode.

Nearly an hour later, my heart was warmed by what they do for the kids there, and it wasn’t just from the hot cocoa they served to visitors.

I understand, maybe more than they realized, what it means for a child to have a home, which is what the ranch provides for foster children.

Since 1966, the ranch has been home to more than 1,200 children ranging in age from birth to 18, providing new hope and opportunities in a caring environment. It can house as many as 66 at a time.

Christine Spadafor, CEO, said the idea of family life can be frightening to many of the children. In the past, home and family were unsafe ideas, a challenge.

According to Kelley McClellan, director of development, 50 to 60 percent of them have been abused and nearly all have been in multiple foster homes before moving to the ranch. For some, it is the first time he or she had the opportunity to live with siblings.

The average stay at the ranch is about a year, Spadafor said. But some have stayed through their entire childhood. It depends on the situation of their biological families.

The program at St. Jude’s is designed to “address the social, emotional and behavioral issues typically present in children who have been abused, abandoned, neglected and homeless.”

The children live in homes, albeit larger than most, with their house parents, the parents’ children if they have them, brothers, sisters and fellow residents. Each house is unique to the “family” living there.

The house parents I spoke with said they can decorate the way they want and try to provide as normal a living situation as they can. There is a big family room, dining area and kitchen. I was impressed that there was even a chore chart.

Everything in the home, from the furniture to the décor to the children’s clothing, comes from donations of gently used and new items.

The children attend school in Boulder City and can get tutoring, if necessary. The ranch has a 100 percent high school graduation rate. There’s also a full therapeutic program so the kids can get any counseling they might need.

One thing that McClellan told us about that really hit home is that they are always in the need of gift cards. The denominations don’t have to be high. They just give the older teens the opportunity to learn how to budget and buy things for themselves. Movie cards are especially appreciated “so teens can experience what other kids do,” she said.

Whatever they are doing seems to be working. I saw nothing but smiles all night everywhere I went and heard plenty of laughter.

By the end of my visit, I started thinking about volunteering, and so did my family. We also thought about ways we could help, things we could do for the children there.

I have no doubt that someday that will happen.

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