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Shelby County’s pastoral countryside and get-away-from-it-all-draw have beckoned many a family to relocate to a setting that gives their children a chance to experience a simpler lifestyle, and it was those very magnets that attracted Mike and Gaye Cox to Shelby County more than 20 years ago.
Gaye Cox, having grown up in Mississippi, met Mike, an Air Force kid, in school. They married young and ended up moving to Colorado. They decided early in their marriage that Gaye Cox would forgo working outside the home in order to work full-time raising their six children.
To support that lifestyle, Mike Cox moved from job to job until the Coxes received a call “out of the blue” about a job offer in Louisville.
And while they were out and about Shelby County looking at property and houses, they came across a copy of The Sentinel-News, featuring a photograph of a chicken nesting under the hood of a pickup truck, that helped seal the deal.
They found a house on a piece of property in eastern Shelby County that became for them a haven that they have established as Stormhaven Youth Ranch, to help troubled children find better lives by connecting them with abused and neglected horses.
The ranch will have its annual fundraiser on Friday night at Claudia Sanders Dinner House in Shelbyville, and the Coxes report that the event is sold out by those who want to support Stormhaven’s mission.
That’s a mission that didn’t begin until the idea of a youth ranch was planted in 2007. Gaye Cox had grown up around horses, but the moves and the size of their family put that love on hold.
“We just could not afford to raise six sons and have horses, too,” she says.
A seed is planted
But then she read an article about Kim and Troy Meeder from the Crystal Peaks Youth Ranch in Ore., and everything changed.
The story explained how the Meeders helped heal both horse and child, and Gaye Cox was so intrigued, she says, that she enrolled in one of the Meeders’ 5-day training sessions.
“I know Gaye and what she’s like and how she’s wired,” Mike Cox says. “I could see how everything was building up to this point [training at the Crystal Peaks Youth Ranch].
“I read the article, and it was like someone was reading her mail! I was glad for the opportunity for her to go out there. I had this side job that paid for her to go to the training, and I knew in my heart that this was something God was leading us to do.”
Gaye Cox says she had that same feeling while she was in Oregon.
“I was so struck by the call of my heart,” she says, “it affected me emotionally. I literally cried for five days straight.”
She says the training brought back memories of her early years when she was ridiculed by children at school to the point of depression. Coincidentally, at that young age a friendship with an abused horse showed her she had love to give and that she was worthy of being loved.
So the Coxes plunged into turning their home into Stormhaven Youth Ranch.
“We were at a time in our lives, with the kids gone and out of the house, we were given this opportunity to serve God in a unique way,” Mike Cox says. “We had twenty-five years’ experience with our kids and with working with children in our church, and Gaye had experience with horses, and she had actually healed herself through a relationship with a horse. So I was all in.”
Doors began to open, and so did the ranch on their property at 504 Christiansburg Road.
Gaye Cox says she has seen over and over again that when a child has a wounded heart, no matter what the cause, reaching out beyond themselves to others is one of the greatest steps to healing.
“Often the first step is a relationship with a horse that stirs a child’s heart with compassion,” she says. “The ranch is a place that provides children the opportunity to begin the healing process.“
Said Mike Cox: “Kids are going through all sorts of things. This program is for kids who are broken hearted. This situation with the horses makes sense. It works. God doesn’t say we have to have our act totally together.
“When we choose to give God what we have, it opens a door for Him to do amazing things through us. We just put our boots on and wait for Him to show up.”
How it works
The ranch has horses of all varieties, Morgans, Thoroughbreds, Quarter Horses, Arabians, Saddlebreds, you name it. Gaye Cox stresses that the “horses have stories, too, just like people. There is some issue the horse has struggled with that causes the children to relate with them. It takes the pressure off and softens their hearts. It’s powerful!”
Their season, which is free to the children and families, runs from April through November. Mornings are spent getting their 17 horses ready for the children and their families, who arrive in the afternoon and stay until evening.
Some of the families drive in from distances an hour away. The children’s time at the ranch is filled with a variety of activities revolving around horses, their families and interaction with the other children. They even have the experience of tending the vegetable garden and taking home the produce harvested from it.
Gaye Cox calls their 20 or so volunteers “the engine that keeps the ranch running.” The volunteers drive in daily as their schedules permit to do whatever needs to be done.
Marcia Miller, a volunteer and who just happens to be one of Mike’s and Gaye’s neighbors, was watching a live-TV interview about Stormhaven Youth Ranch and says, “I was so moved by the interview, it immediately made me want to volunteer.
“When I found out it [the ranch] was actually my neighbor, I went straight over there and began volunteering the next day.”
That was more than four years ago. Miller remains a volunteer and stanch believer in the program.
“Besides doing chores, I am able to come over and take care of the horses while they [the Coxes] are gone, help with fundraising, help make phone calls,” she says. “The volunteer work is great whether you like horses or not. I love it! It’s a mission field right at by back door.
“I’ve been there long enough to see changes in the kids and the families. Some are angry and hurting or cannot make friends. Even some of the families seem to come there broken; but, through the work on the ranch and the time they spend there, I have seen healing happen.
“The horses are matched with the children. To watch it unfold right before you is an amazing thing.”
She tells a story of a mother and daughter who didn’t know how to communicate with each other. “Through working together at the ranch, they hadto talk to one another. Doing the chores around the ranch has given them the chance to heal their relationship,” she says.
Gaye Cox says she loves to see entire families getting involved in the day-to-day chores and enjoys seeing children who have gone through the program returning as volunteers.
“It was just a few weeks ago, three young girls were raking out the stalls. Two of them were sisters and the other was a 7-year-old who had gone through our program. Now she gives of her time which helps make the same experience possible for other kids,” she says.
Amy Mathers is volunteer whose family went through the program. “I began bringing my daughter when she was eleven,” she says. “0She had some anxiety issues and has been in therapy off and on. I began seeing a change in her with only attending one hour a week at the ranch. It has been the biggest life changing thing in our family.”
Stormhaven Youth Ranch is well known and used by residents in surrounding counties. In fact, there are more than 200 children benefiting from the program each year. However, even with Shelby’s love of horses and open hearts toward children, it remains mostly a hidden gem to the people of Shelby County.
The Coxes hope their fundraiser will help lift the camouflage, making Stormhaven more visible locally.
Kim and Troy Meeder will be the guest speakers for this event, which is an honor, Gaye Cox says, because “Crystal Peaks Youth Ranch has provided the inspiration and training of over 400 similar ranches across the country.”