SPARTA—Abundant Life Academy officially opened its doors on Sept. 11. The once-controversial boarding school now has 10 students.
When the school is in full swing, it could have around 80 students and 40 staff members, including pastors, therapists, teachers, groundskeepers, technology personnel, and others.
When asked about the negative feedback that the school initially faced, Rachel Baker, the program administrator for the school, said, “We didn’t let that discourage us. This is where God wanted us to be.”
She said also that she believed God had allowed for hearts to be changed in their view of the school, and people were “able to see that this isn’t a bad thing…it’s a wonderful thing!”
School officials haven’t heard any complaints from neighboring residents.
What sets ALA apart from other programs designed to help troubled teens is that it is an exclusively Christian program, Baker said. That admittedly “limits our audience and clients,” she noted.
Another way that ALA is set apart from other programs, according to Baker, is the strong support of the teens by staff, and from their peers. Baker said that the group of students currently enrolled at the school is a very tight-knit group that laughs a lot and supports each other’s journeys.
The property includes a lake, equestrian center, gymnasium, chapel, kitchen and dining hall, and it is handicapped accessible. The teenagers who come to ALA are able to pursue their academic and spiritual studies in a calm, picturesque environment.
ALA is a place for teenagers who are academically unmotivated, have experimented with sex, alcohol, or drugs, rebel against parents, reject their Christian upbringing, or exhibit other problem behavior.
The students are presented, not only with academic classes, but also with Bible studies, worship services, and a community service orientated environment. “We teach the children to give of themselves…how to be a leader, and give back to the community,” said Baker.
Currently there are three academic teachers, and one guidance counselor, and a therapist employed by the school.
Baker said the school is currently equipped to house 80 students, but right now the number is 10; made up of male and females, ages 13-17. As the student population grows, then the school will be able to offer typical high school activities, including football, basketball and soccer.
“We want to give them opportunities to be regular teenagers,” said Baker, “but within a safe environment.”
The students live on campus, and remain there most of the time. Occasionally the group will leave the grounds for a chaperoned event, such as when motivational speaker Bethany Hamilton made an appearance at The Carmel School in Carmel Church.
Baker said that the students who come to the school usually stay for nine to 12 months, depending on how easily they adjust, and how quickly they complete the program. There are three phases to the program at ALA that the students must move past in order to “graduate.” Each phase lasts for about three to fourth months, and is concluded by a comprehensive evaluation.
The students receive several types of therapy while at the school, depending on their individual needs. Some of the therapies offered include: equine therapy, family restoration; which involves the entire family of a student, and Braincore Biofeedback therapy.
Baker describes Braincore Biofeedback therapy as a drug-free, painless alternative treatment to diagnosed conditions such as attention deficit disorder (ADD), and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and insomnia. Baker said sensors are placed on the student’s cranium that would allow for brainwave activity to broadcast onto a screen. The student is then shown a Pac Man video game, which they must learn to control with their brains, which is intended to train the brain to “think correctly,” and with discipline.
Baker said she is very fond of the students that attend the school, stating that she “loves to see the children experience the Lord,” and to “see that change happen.” Baker said she wanted to work with Abundant Life Academy because she had personally seen teenagers struggle. She said that the school is a place where troubled teens “can find shelter” away from the rest of the world for a little while.
The boarding school for troubled teenagers was founded in 2000 and was originally located in Utah, but sought a special exception permit in 2012 to relocate to Caroline County. Their request was to relocate to the 75 acres of the former Remuda East facility, which is located off Passing Road about seven miles east of Sparta.
Remuda East 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. The former Remuda Ranch is beautiful, and very serene.
ALA’s first attempt to seek permission to relocate was denied, and school officials were told they could not relocate to Caroline County. The Caroline County Board of Supervisors voted 4-2 to deny the request after a public hearing at its Aug. 14 2012 meeting.
After this initial setback however, school officials resubmitted their request in early 2013. After a public hearing held in July, the request was given unanimous support from the county’s Planning Commission.
During the process of askance and acceptance, the school addressed concerns by surrounding citizens about the safety of having a facility for troubled teens so close to their homes. Most of the citizens, who spoke out, had fears and concerns about runaway children. The academy consequently submitted an overview of its security plan, which showed the intention to install 140 surveillance cameras throughout the facility, indoors and outdoors.
In addition to the security plan, students are screened carefully before being admitted. All students are drug-tested within 24 hours of arrival. If they test positive for addictive drugs, they are removed from the school and referred to a detoxification program or other treatment.
Caroline County Sheriff Tony Lippa reviewed the application and approved it with a few conditions. Lippa insisted that school’s security program would be in place before students arrive. He further stated that any crimes should be reported to the Caroline County Sheriff’s Office, and he recommended that the county be reimbursed for costs associated with finding or retrieving students who run away more than once.