Finding acres of hope in Independence 

From left: Volunteer coordinator Jayme Gallegos, Herd Exercise manager Mandy Niefert, Program director Emmy
Arana and Operations director Justin Arana posing inside the barn

Located on a large, emerald stretch of acreage, the Acres of Hope youth ranch, located at 6665 Rickreall Rd. in Independence, brings together nature, animals and a dedicated staff who provide therapeutic activities to the children who desire them. 

With a stated goal of helping create a world where “teens live like they belong,” the ranch does this through a set of acronyms which act as guidelines. 

The ranch tries to share HOPE (Healing, Opportunity, Purpose, Education) with youth in its different programs so that kids who are feeling HURT (Harmed, Unseen, Rejected, Traumatized) have the ability and space to try and overcome these negative feelings. 

The non-profit was co-founded by wife and husband team Emmy and Justin Arana, the program director and operations director respectively. 

The idea for the youth ranch materialized over a decade ago when a member of their family went to prison. 

This initiated a deeper look into themselves and past issues of suicide in the family, finally realizing that a positive outlet for them was to spend time with horses. 

With a small team of 10 composed of session leaders, the people who interact with kids and guide them through activities, as well as other support staff, the small operation is attempting to make big waves. 

Acres of Hope has a dedicated staff, listed on the website, but also accepts help from volunteers. 

To join the volunteer team, Team Grit, go to the website and fill out an application. 

The real stars though, affectionately known as “the Herd,” are the horses such as Aslan, Stanley and Chip, who are all employed as helping animals. 

A variety of programs are available to older children, ages 12-19, though age exceptions are dealt with on a case-by-case scenario. 

Arana described the program as unique, noting that many of the sessions kids come in for are guided by the child themselves and can involve any number of activities. 

A variety of activities are available for those who go such as arts and crafts led by different session leaders, archery classes, a vast property full of trails and scenic areas and of course, the horses. 

All activities and sessions are free of charge though there is a waiting list that can be found and applied to on their website, 

Arana mentioned how staff and volunteer training is done with Liberty House due to their overlapping missions. 

Trainings often include concepts such as Question, Persuade and Refer (QPR) training, a type of questioning that can help identify those contemplating suicide and which Arana described as the CPR of suicide prevention. 

While there are numerous types of issues that people can seek help for at the ranch, the two main focus groups are for youth suicide as well as the acceptance and issues those in the LGBTQ community experience such as grappling with their gender identity. 

Arana described how one of the main goals of the ranch is to create relationships whether it is with the people working there or the animals. 

“We’re here to build relationships with them and provide a place where they feel safe to talk,” Arana said. 

Arana stated that the most popular activity kids chose was interacting with the horses. “We have 10 horses, and they are the true heroes.” 

Kids can interact with the animals in a number of ways such as riding, petting and leading the horses around. 

“These horses all need a leader. You can’t interact with a horse without being its leader in some way,” he added. 

Arana discussed how interactions with large animals like these aid in creating more confidence in the children as successfully leading around an animal over a thousand pounds is not a small task. 

This bonding helps with not only instilling confidence in disaffected youth but also helps continue to build their trust in others, a critical component to being able to overcome past trauma, according to Arana. 

All staff working at the ranch are mandatory abuse reporters, per Oregon law, meaning that if a child comes to the ranch and discloses abuse or neglect, they are obligated to report it to authorities. 

Going into the future, Arana talked about growing his ranch and the services offered to better accommodate the many that want to go. 

The ranch experienced a massive growth (73%) in the amount of kids attending help sessions and wanting to sign up with anywhere from 50 to 70 families on the waiting list at different points last year and over 100 families on the waiting list in 2022. 

“We have a 20-acre hay field that we have visions to expand into different things,” Arana said. 

Arana admitted, however, that while the room to grow is available, their material reality doesn’t always line up. 

“Running a nonprofit is difficult,” Arana added. 

 In order to raise the needed funding, the ranch employs a combination of state grants and community donation gathering. 

According to Arana, the ranch was awarded between $150,000 and $200,000 in 2023 in grant money with the aid of local grant writer, Joy Dickinson.

The other portion of funding needed is gathered through community donations at events such as the upcoming Barn Party the ranch is hosting on June 1 at 6 p.m. located at the Acres of Hope ranch. 

The purpose of the party is to celebrate the ranch and its hard work as well as raise money to help fund the ranch and its activities.

The auction revolves around auctioning off the care, gear and food for each horse, around $45,000 in total, so that those winning their bid effectively become the sponsor of each of the horses, according to Arana. 

He stated that a good deal of the funding goes to feeding and properly caring for the horses and ranch as well as the employee payroll.

At last year’s auction he noted that they raised around $195,000 with this year’s goal, taking last year’s lead, at $200,000. 

Acres of Hope also accepts donations through a portal on their website. 

Justin with helper-in-training Stanley.
Spotted Appaloosa Regalo going for a morning walk
Horse helper Kimber
The inside area of the barn where horses run, activities are held and the barn party on June 1 will be held.
Luna having some breakfast
A gear room for all the accoutrement needed to ride
Stanley coming over for a closer look after spotting some new people on the ranch

Contact Quinn Stoddard
[email protected] or 503-390-1051

SUBSCRIBE TO GET KEIZER NEWS — We report on your community with care, depth, fairness, and accuracy. Get local news that matters to you. Subscribe today to get our daily newsletters and more