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Photo courtesy of Rawhide Boys Ranch

Rawhide Boys Ranch celebrates 50th anniversary

Those familiar with the green and gold may recall the days of a Green Bay Packers legend appearing on television commercials for Rawhide Boys Ranch. After serving thousands of at-risk youth for 50 years, no one is prouder than No. 15 to see the nonprofit celebrate its own shining achievement.

While Bart Starr may have new obstacles to overcome away from the gridiron as he battles health issues that began in September 2014, he joins his wife, Cherry, in his adoration for Rawhide.

“Rawhide is a constant reminder that the principles of love, kindness, pride, humility, responsibility and a prioritized life really do matter,” Cherry shared. “When you establish an environment in which these values are the core of a young man’s life – you can witness so many possibilities for his future.”

Rawhide began in 1965 as the vision of John and Jan Gillespie. The Gillespies, looking for the backing of a major endorsement, reached out to Bart in hopes he would support their vision to help troubled boys. The Gillespies, who live in Appleton, continue to serve as spokespersons for Rawhide as well.

The 501(c)(3) New London-based charity sits on 600 acres, 120 of that is currently made up of a high school, Starr Academy, seven homes where youth can stay for intensive residential services, counseling, an outpatient mental health clinic, training center and café. Businesses and outside organizations are welcome to make use of certain areas at no cost and about 40 bus tours also pass through annually. When Rawhide first started, it was no more than a lodge. Now, however, plans of expansion are a possibility as needs continue to grow.

“Our greatest wish for Rawhide is that the dedication of the volunteers and staff continues to be strong,” Cherry notes. “We have been so fortunate over the years and truly believe you will not find more committed individuals than those who contribute their time and talents to these young men. They are the true heroes of Rawhide’s 50-year success and legacy.”

Youth who come to Rawhide are either referred by the court system or by parents, says John Solberg, executive director for Rawhide. By the time they reach Rawhide, the staff has a good “road map” to work with including court records and information from health professionals.

“You realize the impact its having on thousands of boys,” he says. “It’s continuing to impact more youth and families in crisis.”

While Rawhide services are available to those from out of state, 98 percent of youth come from Wisconsin, including areas such as the Fox Cities, New London, Green Bay, Milwaukee and West Bend. About 120 youth are served each year in the residential programs, while 600-650 youth take part in outpatient programming. Solberg is looking to expand the prevention-based continuum and leverage Rawhide’s expertise. Intensive family weeks and an adventure-based summer camp also are offered.

The faith-based charity centers on the pillars of respect, responsibility and self control, and provides youth the opportunity to reflect on and get to the root of their behavior both at home and in the community.

Since Rawhide’s beginnings, services have expanded to respond to more acute mental health challenges, Solberg says.

“As time has gone by, we’re seeing more trauma play out in the lives of youth,” he adds. “When youth are left on their own, they’re being exposed to more negative experiences.”

How youth are nurtured, whether or not they’re accustomed to a supervised environment and the presence of a father figure can all be contributing factors to their demeanor.

“Rawhide’s programming and service offerings continue to adapt to meet the needs of who we serve,” says Danny Stone, director of youth services at Rawhide. In particular, as we focus on family stability, we have gone a long way in not only enriching the lives of who we serve, but also having an impact in the various communities that those youth and families reside.”

New challenges with addiction to heroin, oxycontin and opiates are causing Rawhide staff to examine other needs for treatment services. The goal of Rawhide is to address trauma, reveal insight into a youth’s behavior, teach constructive skill sets, change familiar destructive habits, teach communication, assist with adapting to environmental changes and restore relationships. Most youth in the intensive programs are at Rawhide for three to six months.

In addition to exposure to reading, math, science, English, art, and access to a workout center, computer lab, student activity center and wood shop at Starr Academy, youth also have the opportunity to take advantage of work experience programs with boats and cars to learn in-depth mechanical knowledge. Vehicles, some of which are donated, are to be sold at auction once they’re repaired. Rawhide youth don’t, however, just get this opportunity without earning it. They must apply for a position, interview and retain their job by being scored daily on the quality and quantity of their work, along with receiving constructive feedback.

“As we look to the future of educating young men at Rawhide, we are looking to expand our TechEd and vocational/industrial art class offerings,” says Dan Birr, director of education and principal of Starr Academy. “Right now, we have a high-quality wood shop classroom, but our goal would be to expand and offer a wide variety of courses in this ‘hands-on’ field of study. Another key expansion area will be to build upon the foundation of life skill class offerings that we are currently teaching so that when our boys transition back to their area communities they will be prepared.”

In the residential program, “house parents” live in the same residence with youth to model appropriate behaviors. Everyone has lunch together and participates in household chores, Solberg explains.

On school days, classes go until 3:15 p.m. and then group therapy is held until 4 p.m. followed by recreational time until dinner. Other activities available to youth in the residential programs include swimming, fishing and playing disc golf on an 18-hole course.

As an extension of Rawhide’s mental health services, an equine animal therapy program also is offered. This offering allows therapists to get a read on individuals in a different environment by witnessing anxiety levels, interactions between youth and horse, etc. There’s also the About Face Treatment, which is a short-term, military-style structured, residential program with an emphasis on behavioral change and involvement in completing community service in a targeted 120 days.

In addition to serving youth, Rawhide is home to a collection of memorabilia in the Bart & Cherry Starr Museum. The museum was a surprise gift to the couple for their 60th anniversary a year and a half ago, shares Solberg.

“It serves as a nice legacy to the continuity they’ve given Rawhide over the years,” he adds, noting Bart and Cherry, who live in Alabama, used to visit annually. “He and his wife and family have all been in our prayers. … We support them in any way we can.”

It is the goal of the Starr family to see Bart return to Wisconsin to join with Packer nation for the Thanksgiving game when Brett Favre’s number will be retired. However, it’s one step as a time. As has been Bart’s mindset for ages, you set a goal that is attainable, work toward it, reach it and ramp up again. His rehabilitation and recovery process has been a series of setbacks and small victories, but the Starr family remains optimistic.

“To be involved with Rawhide has been one of our life’s greatest gifts,” says Cherry. “We will always be grateful for the opportunity the Ranch gave us to assist these young men. Each time Rawhide is able to positively impact one life it is tremendously rewarding for everyone involved.”

—FC

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