School for troubled teens eyes Remuda Ranch

Posted on Friday, July 6, 2012 at 4:00 pm

A Christian boarding school that specializes in teaching and helping troubled teenagers is seeking to relocate from Utah to the former Remuda Ranch property near Bowling Green.

Abundant Life Academy (ALA) is a nonprofit, therapeutic Christian boarding school currently located in St. George, Utah. It hopes to relocate to the former Remuda Ranch-East location in Caroline County, according to Paul Branning, 58, of Freehold, N.J., chairman of the ALA board of directors.

The school would hire at least 40 staff locally if it relocates, a figure that does not include 12 staff families that would make the move to Virginia.

The school has applied for a special exception permit from Caroline County to operate 75 acres as a therapeutic health facility. The Caroline County  Planning Commission was scheduled to consider the request at a July 11 work session and may take it up again at its regular July 18 meeting. The site, which contains 516 acres, is owned by an Ashland-based business called Beverly Run LLC.

The board was attracted to Virginia for many reasons, according to Branning, including the facility and the state’s strong Christian community. There are no other schools on the East Coast that provide the same services as ALA, he said.

“We chose Virginia because it’s a more Christian state and Utah is not,” said Branning, who took over as chairman of the school last September. Utah is home to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also known as the Mormon Church, and has a large Mormon population.

ALA, which strives to instill Christian beliefs into troubled teens, has had difficulty recruiting personnel in Utah who share its core values, according to Branning. He already has begun efforts to recruit potential employees in the Fredericksburg region, reaching out to local churches and colleges.

The school would employ pastors, therapists, teachers, groundskeepers, technology personnel, and others. The boarding school’s present student to teacher ratio is one to one, and it serves about 40-45 teens at any given time.

“The space we’ll have to cover will be greater than what we’ve had in the past, so we will need to hire more people,” said Branning.

The property includes a lake, equestrian center, gymnasium, chapel, kitchen and dining hall, and it is handicapped accessible. ALA would lease the location with an option to purchase it in the future.

“The location has everything we need,” said Branning.

The school currently serves youths from 30 continental states – including Virginia – and Canada. According to the ALA website, the school operates under the guidelines and requirements of the Utah State Office of Education and is accredited through the Northwest Accreditation Commission, which is the same as other Utah high schools, colleges and universities.

The school accepts teenagers aged 13-18 and occasionally 12-year-olds. Tuition varies due to travel expenses and other factors, but the cost can be reduced by scholarships and sponsors.

ALA offers a 12-month, therapeutic program and is open year-round. Teens engage in a variety of activities, including equine therapy, family restoration, academics, community service/missions, athletics, church, and Bible study.

“We want the teens to learn to give back to the community,” said Branning. “They learn to do that daily through our staff, who use every single moment as a teaching moment.”

Students are required to attend church on site every Sunday, and they have the option of attending Bible studies. ALA is a non-denominational school that accepts all religions.

“Teens are expected to attend church,” said Branning. “Families know when they sign their teens up that we are Christians and that we will teach their teens Christian values.”

Branning has visited the property near Bowling Green and made a second visit with two school officials. “The second time I came I brought our executive director and operating director, since we were in Maryland at a pastors conference.”

At one point the board of directors considered expanding and adding locations, according to Branning.  However, the proposal to add a school was eventually dismissed.

Numerous employees and board members are excited about the possibility of relocating, he said, and some employees already have decided to pack up and move with the school. ALA is helping other employees find new employment and also is looking for another school or organization take over its facility in Utah.

ALA, which is affiliated with Veritas Adolescent Services, hopes to relocate to Caroline in September. “We can move anytime,” said Branning, “but September is an ideal month for us to make the move.”

ALA was founded in 2000. The school serves teens who are academically unmotivated, have experimented with sex, alcohol, or drugs, rebel against parents, reject their Christian upbringing, or exhibit other problem behavior.

Remuda East, which employed 73 people, was a residential behavioral treatment facility that operated in Caroline from September 2007 to March 2011. It provided services for up to 48 women for anorexia, bulimia, depression, and substance abuse.

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