Re­becca Chris­tians

A long ride be­yond grief

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - PROFILES - LARA HIGHTOWER

Rev­e­la­tion, Boy, Daisy Mae, Ja­cob, Free­dom, Lily, Ed­die, Ru­fus, Lit­tle Dude, Gideon, Lady­bug, Wil­low, Sage, Delilah, Moses, Luca. “And last but not least, the dwarf minia­ture horse, Paul.”

Re­becca Chris­tians can rat­tle off the names of the 17 horses, minia­ture horses and don­keys that have found homes at

Au­tumn’s ReRide Youth Ranch — where she has been the pro­pri­etor since she founded it in 2009 — faster than you can say “Cracker Jack.” On a re­cent tour of the ap­prox­i­mately seven-acre prop­erty near Ben­tonville, she’s equally adept at giv­ing a vis­i­tor a peek into each an­i­mal’s per­son­al­ity and the long twisty road each took to end up un­der Chris­tians’ care.

For ex­am­ple: Daisy Mae and Ja­cob, paired up to­gether in a pas­ture, are two of the ranch’s lame horses, slow to es­cape even though the wire en­clos­ing the pas­ture they’re in has re­cently been tram­pled by a herd of deer that runs through Chris­tians’ acreage pe­ri­od­i­cally.

“He’s had an in­jury to his shoul­der, he’s an old rop­ing horse,” says Chris­tians. “And Daisy Mae, at one of her pre­vi­ous homes, she got her back leg caught up in some wire, and it sev­ered some ten­dons.”

Boy is her es­cape artist, al­ways quick to take ad­van­tage of a downed fence. Rev­e­la­tion, with a hide like vel­vet and long, grace­ful legs, is a res­cued race­horse from Ken­tucky.

“He’s ac­tu­ally too much horse for this ranch,” says Chris­tians. “He’s su­per, su­per hot. Real go, go, go. Race­horses are high-strung, they’re bred for that. He came to us be­cause they were go­ing to put him down; he had frac­tured a knee. He can run like the wind, too. That’s a thor­ough­bred for you. He’s a mess, but he’s got a heart. He’s so sweet, so sweet.”

Lily has no phys­i­cal im­per­fec­tions: She’s snowy white and more glam­orous than a pony has a right

“Where, for many, the griev­ing process is very in­di­vid­u­ally ori­ented, Re­becca took the ugli­est feel­ings and turned them into some­thing beau­ti­ful. As we all do, she, too has rough days — and no, her life isn’t per­fect. But she has cho­sen joy. She is mak­ing the con­scious choice to take tragedy and fight to make sure that heal­ing and love are avail­able to ev­ery­one she comes in con­tact with.” — Emily Corey

to be. But she has an out­sized at­ti­tude, says Chris­tians. “She’s a pony through and through. When you’re late to feed her, she corkscrews her head and flips her mane like she’s Fabio.

“But I love rid­ing her be­cause she’s so fun.”

It’s ev­i­dent that Chris­tians loves ev­ery an­i­mal that is lucky enough to have found a home un­der her roof, from the horses to the flock of some 30 chick­ens, to the two sheep that keep Paul com­pany in his stall. Most of the an­i­mals have a phys­i­cal de­fect that would have made them un­de­sir­able at other farms or ranches, but Chris­tians loves them all the more be­cause of their flaws. Phys­i­cal dis­abil­i­ties are an im­por­tant teach­ing tool for the kids who come to Chris­tians’ ranch, and, be­sides, Chris­tians be­lieves in sec­ond chances.

“The ranch pro­vides a safe and peace­ful en­vi­ron­ment where bro­ken chil­dren, horses and fam­i­lies can find hope and peace within the heal­ing glow of un­con­di­tional love free­ing them from their trou­bles and sad­ness. As the chil­dren work dili­gently, car­ing for these strug­gling horses to help them get bet­ter, the chil­dren get bet­ter,” reads the mis­sion state­ment on the ranch’s web­site.

“We teach the kid­dos a work ethic, ser­vant­hood, and we make sure they know they are a huge help in car­ing for the horses and the ranch,” Chris­tians ex­plains. “Some­times, they even help with a wound treat­ment with a horse — med­i­ca­tion, things like that.”

All ser­vices of­fered at the ranch are free, mak­ing it ac­ces­si­ble for all fam­i­lies seek­ing its ser­vices.

“My son, Alex, has autism and, there­fore, has mul­ti­ple chal­lenges,” says Lori DeLuca, whose three chil­dren at­tend ses­sions at the ranch and who has helped Chris­tians with her fundrais­ing ef­forts. “The ranch has brought him so much joy. He cares about the an­i­mals as if they were mem­bers of his own fam­ily. Ed­die, one of the don­keys, will not al­low any­one to ride him or even to get too close. Yet, he trusts Alex so much. The bond is not only beau­ti­ful to wit­ness but also has given Alex so much con­fi­dence and pur­pose. For my son, that is price­less.”

THE ‘WRECKAGE’ OF SUI­CIDE

To­day, Chris­tians is sunny and sure-footed, full of en­ergy but still some­how ra­di­at­ing a peace­ful calm. It’s only when she re­counts the story of the ranch’s ori­gins that it be­comes ev­i­dent that it and its beau­ti­ful, dam­aged an­i­mals have res­cued Chris­tians as much as it has any of the chil­dren she has served over the years.

“The wreckage that’s left be­hind from some­one’s sui­cide is in­sur­mount­able,” she says qui­etly. Chris­tians’ daugh­ter, Au­tumn, took her own life in 2002. “The wreckage that causes some­one to make that choice is even worse.”

At the time of Au­tumn’s death, Chris­tians was a mother of three — Au­tumn,

her older sis­ter, Ash­ley, and younger brother, Scott. She had spent long years as a sin­gle par­ent, strug­gling to sup­port her fam­ily, in be­tween two mar­riages. The prod­uct of what she calls a “dys­func­tional” fam­ily, she thinks the tur­moil in her early years prob­a­bly had a lot to do with her choices later on.

“I think my [ini­tial] choices in a spouse were not that great, and I think that was re­flected in what I thought of my­self. All of those hard­ships, they shape you. I re­mem­ber, as an adult, get­ting evicted. I wouldn’t be able to pay my rent, I made too much money for food stamps, but I couldn’t af­ford child care … all the stuff that sin­gle moms strug­gle with.

“As much as I would try not to, I spent more time work­ing than I did with my kids. If I were to re­gret any­thing in my life, it would be that, but I re­ally didn’t have a choice. I couldn’t find a choice. I was ca­pa­ble of work­ing, so I wanted to do that. I wanted my kids to know that you can get some­where when you work hard. I think I showed them that.”

When Au­tumn started strug­gling emo­tion­ally, Chris­tians says she wasn’t equipped to re­al­ize that it was some­thing more than the usual grow­ing pains with which teenagers usu­ally strug­gle. Clues to how se­ri­ous the sit­u­a­tion was were ev­i­dent only in ret­ro­spect.

“I was an ig­no­rant par­ent,” she says. “I wasn’t a stupid par­ent, I was ig­no­rant. When our kids spend most of their day­light time at school, a par­ent just doesn’t see stuff. I didn’t know how to find in­for­ma­tion to help. I tried to get Au­tumn into Vista [Health Ser­vices], but they were full. There was nowhere else to go that I knew about, and I thought I had things in place. I thought that she was see­ing the coun­selor at school. I thought we were be­ing re­ally proac­tive, and I wasn’t, ap­par­ently.

“I can’t own all of that, but I can own some of it, be­cause, in ret­ro­spect, there were things that I didn’t see that I didn’t clock — things that only made sense af­ter­wards.”

One of those things came to light in an ar­gu­ment she and Au­tumn had

shortly be­fore she died.

“I’ll never for­get it,” Chris­tians says. “She was sit­ting on the floor of the bath­room, and I was stand­ing up with my arms crossed, and we’re go­ing back and forth about — I don’t even know — and she looked at me and said, ‘Do you know that I’m bi[sex­ual], Mom?’ and I looked at her and said, ‘Are you stupid?’ Be­cause in the heat of the mo­ment, what’s the best way to re­ally get your Chris­tian mom’s goat? I had no idea that she was try­ing to tell me some­thing or get my at­ten­tion.

“I went and apol­o­gized to her later, but that never came up again, and I had no idea. I truly had no idea.”

Un­sur­pris­ingly, Chris­tians de­scended into a deep de­pres­sion in the af­ter­math of Au­tumn’s death.

“I just stopped be­ing a par­ent,” con­fesses Chris­tians. “I wasn’t able to. I ended up with anx­i­ety and PTSD, and your brain just goes into block mode.”

Chris­tians’ de­pres­sion even­tu­ally got so se­vere that, around six months af­ter Au­tumn’s death, fam­ily mem­bers urged her to ad­mit her­self to a fa­cil­ity to get help.

“I was in a bad place,” she re­mem­bers. “I wouldn’t leave the house. My son stole my truck one time just to go get some food from the gro­cery store be­cause I couldn’t leave the house. I was not OK.”

Once out of the treat­ment fa­cil­ity and on med­i­ca­tion, Chris­tians strug­gled to deal with the chal­lenges of ev­ery­day life. Her sec­ond mar­riage had ended when her hus­band moved out of their house the day she en­tered treat­ment, but she was de­ter­mined to pull her life to­gether for her chil­dren’s sake.

The turn­ing point was when she con­nected with her fu­ture hus­band Steve Chris­tians, the par­ent of one of Ash­ley’s good friends.

“I was not do­ing well, but I had man­aged to go to Harps in Bella Vista one day,” she re­mem­bers. “And, oh my gosh, the med­i­ca­tion I was tak­ing … I was over­weight, se­ri­ously over­weight, I hadn’t show­ered in I can’t re­mem­ber how many days, I was in dirty sweats, I looked ter­ri­ble. I saw him and I was like,

‘Ugh, I don’t want to talk to this man, I don’t want to talk to any­one I know,’ and I went to any other reg­is­ter than the one he was at. He saw me and went to the reg­is­ter I was at and stood at the end of it and waited for me. He started talk­ing to me then went to give me a hug, and I just fell into him.”

A HUS­BAND AND A HORSE

The pair had been see­ing each other for seven months when Steve pro­posed at Whi­taker Point; the cou­ple mar­ried a week later. Chris­tians cites this as one of the first steps she took to­ward stronger men­tal health, and she would spend the next few years nav­i­gat­ing the dif­fi­cult path back to emo­tional well-be­ing.

“I was strug­gling to keep a job,” she re­calls. “I had a ter­ri­ble time keep­ing a job be­cause of my anx­i­ety. There are still days when I can’t leave my house. I have a ser­vice dog, now, but there are still days that I just can’t face it. And back then, they were get­ting more and more fre­quent, and I was in tears all the time, try­ing to go to my job. I was try­ing to be pro­duc­tive. I wanted to give back.”

By this time, Steve had bought Chris­tians her first horse — an Ara­bian mare named Sissy. She had long been a horse en­thu­si­ast, but she had never owned one of her own. She was smit­ten. At the time, she was work­ing as a spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion para­pro­fes­sional in an autism class­room and fre­quently took the stu­dents to the lo­cal, non­profit, ther­a­peu­tic rid­ing cen­ter, Horses for Heal­ing. She could see that the kids were as en­thu­si­as­tic about — and as emo­tion­ally in­vested in — the horses as she was. A ker­nel of an idea was be­gin­ning to form in­side her brain, but it wasn’t un­til a friend loaned her an in­for­ma­tional CD that Au­tumn’s ReRide Youth Ranch was born.

“A lady from my church had given me an in­ter­view with Kim Meeder from Crys­tal Peaks Youth Ranch in Bend, Ore.,” she re­mem­bers. “I sat down one day to lis­ten to it be­fore I had to re­turn the CD that com­ing Sun­day. Re­mem­ber, I had been pray­ing so hard for God to give me a di­rec­tion [for] what I was sup­posed to be do­ing to turn Au­tumn’s pass­ing into a pos­i­tive to help oth­ers that were strug­gling.

“Well, within five min­utes of lis­ten­ing to this in­ter­view with Kim, I knew be­yond a doubt what I was be­ing called to do.”

Chris­tians cre­ated Au­tumn’s ReRide Youth Ranch on the prop­erty where she and Steve lived, which butted up against seven acres avail­able for lease. She started with Sissy and then slowly be­gan ac­quir­ing more horses: some res­cued, some do­nated and some pur­chased.

Chris­tians has had a lot of com­mu­nity sup­port — Ben­tonville Church of the Nazarene, for ex­am­ple, has do­nated much time and la­bor to her or­ga­ni­za­tion — but she lists her hus­band Steve as her big­gest sup­porter.

“He is the best part­ner I could ask for to do this with,” Chris­tians says. “This was not his idea, and, in fact, he will tell you this was not what he had planned when he bought this place. But if it wasn’t for Steve, the build­ings wouldn’t be like they are, the main­te­nance wouldn’t be done. He does all the stuff that you don’t see, that’s in the back­ground.”

Chris­tians is the pri­mary leader of ses­sions with the kids that come to the ranch, though she takes on ranch hands and ap­pren­tices to help out. She says that all chil­dren are wel­come: She be­lieves that the heal­ing pow­ers of the an­i­mals on the ranch can ben­e­fit just about any­one.

“It’s lit­er­ally all in­clu­sive, be­cause, I tell you what, if you’re a kid in 2017, you’re not go­ing to get out of [this life] un­scathed,” she says.

“I have six chil­dren who all par­tic­i­pate in ranch ses­sions,” says Jeanette Wright. “Our teen son also spent the sum­mer vol­un­teer­ing at the ranch. On the ride to our first ses­sion, he de­cided he would not like the ranch and would likely not re­turn — but dur­ing the ses­sion, he made an in­stant con­nec­tion with one of the horses and begged to be a vol­un­teer and spent most of his sum­mer serv­ing along­side Re­becca. She re­ally al­lowed him to take some own­er­ship and lead­er­ship and gave him a huge con­fi­dence boost. We saw him grow so much in his ma­tu­rity in just the few months he served with Re­becca.”

SHARED BLESS­INGS

Emily Corey, now a col­lege stu­dent at Saint Louis Univer­sity, met Re­becca when she did a day of ser­vice at the ranch when she was as sopho­more. She had no idea that Chris­tians would turn out to be a pri­mary sup­port sys­tem for her dur­ing the next two years. Corey’s fam­ily was in the process of tak­ing in foster chil­dren, and it was a dif­fi­cult tran­si­tion for the high school stu­dent.

“ARRYR be­came a place of refuge for me, like it had been for so many oth­ers,” Corey says. “[As] some­one who met her when I was strug­gling to han­dle each morn­ing I woke up, I can gen­uinely say that Re­becca has im­pacted my value in life and has been there to lis­ten to me cry both through texts and in per­son. Be­fore I left for col­lege, she wrote a lit­tle note, and on the front of the en­ve­lope it said, ‘You are loved.’ I have kept that en­ve­lope (and note) since, and on days when the last thing I feel is loved, I look at it and re­mem­ber all the ways the ranch and ranch com­mu­nity have blessed me.”

Fund­ing for the ranch is dif­fi­cult to come by. Ap­pro­pri­ate grants for what Chris­tians is do­ing are few and far be­tween, and, as she notes, there is stiff com­pe­ti­tion for dol­lars. There have been times, she says, when the ranch’s bank ac­count has been nearly empty, but some­thing al­ways seems to come through at the last minute. Through it all, Chris­tians is de­ter­mined to per­se­vere. She be­lieves she needs to ful­fill her pur­pose, which is shar­ing what she’s learned from Au­tumn’s death. In ad­di­tion to run­ning the ranch, she makes her­self avail­able to any schools or youth pro­grams that want her to come and talk to par­ents or stu­dents about sui­cide.

“My in­ten­tion was to help oth­ers and to be a bless­ing to oth­ers, and it’s so much the other way around,” Chris­tians says, her voice break­ing. “I am so well-loved by all of these folks that I can’t even de­scribe it. I don’t take that for granted, ever. They help me more than I can ever do for them.”

When asked if she could ex­press the most mean­ing­ful les­son she learned from her daugh­ter’s death, she pauses for a long mo­ment.

“Press in to ev­ery minute that you can with your kids,” she says qui­etly. “Pay at­ten­tion to the lit­tle things that they say. You never know when you need to be re­ally pay­ing at­ten­tion to that. Love them where they’re at, no mat­ter what.

“And choose joy. Al­ways.”

NWA Demo­crat-Gazette/JA­SON IVESTER

NWA Demo­crat-Gazette/BEN GOFF @NWABENGOFF

“Re­becca is pa­tient and un­der­stand­ing. She’s worked with autis­tic kids in the past. … She un­der­stands them and knows how they ‘tick’. Not much in­ter­ests my daugh­ter. How­ever, she ab­so­lutely loves the horses. It ex­cites her to go to the ranch. It’s calm­ing to her to ride. It’s helped her phys­i­cally and men­tally. Plus she loves be­ing around the other kids.” — Jen­nifer Lun­deen

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