Nonprofit searching for mentor and volunteers
By Robert Williams
Lutheran Women’s Missionary League (LWML) zone president Carol May was on a quest for a keynote speaker for the upcoming fall rally and found one in Emily Vanegas, owner of the aptly named Firefly Fields Youth Ranch in Vergas. Vanegas’ ranch name fit’s the rally’s theme of “Walking as Children of Light” in more ways than one. ¶ The ranch is far more than a farm with herds of animals. It is a ministry that serves to help disadvantaged children and adults by being a light and beacon of hope to people struggling with all kinds of mental health challenges. ¶ Vanegas said the ranch was part of a calling when she was young and searching for purpose, something God helped her find. ¶ “We do credit Him for why we’re around; we do it for Him and we believe He is the reason why these animals are so healing and beneficial to us,” she said. “If it wasn’t for Him, I would have never explored this avenue. The mission is simply being the light for those in need. It’s bringing joy to people who are down and need it.”
Vanegas pursued degrees in equine science and education at North Dakota State University and was searching on how to use both of those methods together.
“I didn’t know that I wanted to do it until I was in the midst of going to college,” she said. “A friend encouraged me to check out this place in Oregon called Crystal Peaks Youth Ranch; they gave you the nuts and bolts about starting a ministry using horses and rescue animals to mentor disadvantaged kids. I have a strong faith background and I couldn’t put together what I was supposed to do and I just felt God calling me to check this place out. That friend ended up passing away shortly after starting her own ministry and it kind of left me having a strong calling to do it. I checked it out and had no idea what to expect.”
Her friend’s advice ended up leading Vanegas to exactly where she was supposed to be.
“This is everything that I’ve been preparing for and I didn’t know why,” she said. “I love kids and I love the quiet. Horses can be so intuitive and reflective.”
Firefly Fields packs a wide array of animals on the property from alpacas to rabbits.
“It’s amazing, some of the kids though, their favorite animals are the ducks and the chickens,” said Vanegas.
Visitors to the ranch tend to be between the ages of 5 and 18.
“We have a lot of teenagers or tweens; we try to do as much one-on-one as we can but we’ll have a lot of groups out too,” said Vanegas.
That human interaction is as important as healing time spent with the animals.
“It’s having a person that cares about you and spending time with you,” said Vanegas. “I think it’s really just getting outside of a house and spending time outdoors and being in God’s creation.”
Kids come to the ranch through multiple means.
“A lot of it is word-of-mouth, or a social worker or teacher who has a kid that can benefit from something that we do,” Vanegas said.
A need for volunteers
The ranch is in desperate need of more mentors and volunteers.
“The biggest part – we’re lacking in volunteers and mentors—people that can also spend time, especially, as my family is growing,” Vanegas said.
Running a one-woman operation as a stay-at-home mom has gotten to be a big handful with three young kids, the youngest at only four-months, plus a three and five-year-old.
Running the nonprofit’s website, social media and operations, from paperwork to farm work is more than one full-time job.
“I don’t want to be spending time answering phone calls and recruiting; I want to be working with the kids and the animals, because that’s what I’m passionate about,” Vanegas said. “The biggest thing is the more we can tell people what we’re trying to do the more potential people we can have who want to invest somehow and support.”
Supporting kids is top priority and the mission of Firefly Fields.
“We want to be teaching a kid a lesson in confidence or self-esteem, or setting boundaries and horses are a great way to do that,” said Vanegas.
Extension of childhood
While it took the death of a friend and a few hints from the Almighty to get Vanegas on the path to her calling, the ranch is also an extension of her own childhood.
“I grew up with horses and dogs and they were always like my…when I didn’t have answers for anything else and people let me down; when I couldn’t get the words out I would just go ride my horse and it was a feeling-releasing thing because you can’t think of anything else when you’re on this huge animal that has a mind of its own,” she said.
Emily also got a taste of caring for kids who were in need at a young age.
“My parents did foster care for years and I would teach my foster siblings how to ride and I would see how they constantly had things going through their minds because they’d been through trauma,” she said.
The healing nature of nature itself and living on a farm goes back generations.
“They were healing for me and a way to bond with my mom and dad and growing up my grandparents had a dairy farm,” said Vanegas. “I absolutely loved going out there and they had all the animals I wish we could have here on the lake. It was just so relaxing. I had a lot of anxiety and depression and when I was around them, the horses would reflect that back at you. You have to check yourself of that stuff. It pushes you.”
The rescue horses at the ranch play important roles in helping kids and motivating them.
“Once you earn the horse’s trust, they’ll do whatever for you; you have to get there,” said Vanegas.
Subsisting on generosity
Emily and her husband Alex purchased the ranch property on the southern edge of Long Lake in 2017 and received grants and donations for a lot of the fencing.
“It was really rough to start out with,” she said.
A sponsor paid for electricity to be put in one of the farm’s barns. The ranch has expanded on 99 percent personal donations and Vanegas is looking for ways to expand on that.
“We have a 501(c)(3), but we also live here so we want to invest in our place too,” she said. “We don’t have a grant writer; we apply for small local grants that I can find the time to sit down and fill out.”
The animals have come from many different avenues.
“This has been an accumulation,” said Vanegas.
Emily’s friend who passed away had rescued four horses from Louisiana and they moved to Vergas and were trained to work around kids. Other youth ranches and humane society seizures provided other animals. Some were purchased and making sure the animals are able to safely be around kids is mandatory.
In the case of pigs, Vanegas acquired a breeding pair of Kunekune pigs, which are ideal for small farms. Kunekune means “fat and round” in the Maori language and the pigs are grazers and pasture managers. They also make excellent quality meat. As a heritage breed, the KuneKune meat is red and deeply marbled, almost like fine steak. They also produce lard which can be used in cooking, baking and soap making.
“Some of them we want to be able to raise babies from to be able to help go back into the ranch and support it,” Vanegas said. “It doesn’t just operate and as much as donations help there is a lot of it that is us behind the scenes being creative and my husband being generous and letting us keep going.”
Alex’s construction background comes in very handy around the ranch.
“Luckily, I have him because he’s built the lean-tos and the hitching post; he’s really not an animal guy; I don’t think he realized how big I was dreaming,” Emily laughed.
Planning for the future
Finding volunteers and mentors will be key for Firefly Fields Youth Ranch to succeed in the future.
“I know that God’s timing has to be perfect for it all to line up and go forward,” said Vanegas. “The bigger that we get, you sometimes realize we have to scale back a bit. Volunteers come and go. When things are going well and we have extra hands—great. Right now, it’s hard for me to do all the things and feel like I can do it well.”
Vanegas also spends time with kids at Perham Public Schools and has seen the difference the learning space at the ranch can make compared to conventional school space.
“I worked in the middle school as an EBD (Emotional and behavioral disorders) para and I worked a lot as a substitute teacher and I can tell you kids can learn, obviously a lot at school, but some kids need a different learning environment,” she said. “They need it slowed down. They need one person to be teaching them. They need your undivided attention or something else to motivate them.”
Many times that motivation comes from the animals.
“We try to have all the animals have an extra purpose behind them,” Vanegas said. “They’re therapy but we don’t need to call it therapy for them to have that effect.”
The ranch also provides kids a variety learning opportunities, like the shearing of sheep and alpacas to make fiber or angora rabbits, which produce a fiber similar to cashmere.
“Anytime we can have the kids help with something like that it is just so fun to show them where their clothes come from,” said Vanegas.
Emily noted she has received calls from social workers and agencies who are looking to promote the ranch, but it is imperative that there is enough help at the ranch to provide the services.
“I want more kids because I know how much it can benefit each of them and I feel so strongly about helping them, but there is only one of me,” she said. “We need more people who want to hang out with the kids – volunteers and mentors. Even if a person was interested in coming out and reading to kids, that would be amazing.”
It’s not all fun and games at the ranch. Every kid who visits the ranch gets a half-hour of chores before anything during a typical 90-minute mentoring session by appointment.
“It’s about experiencing something different,” said Vanegas. “Learn about self-esteem, confidence, responsibility, hard work a little bit.”
Volunteers and mentors are not mandated to have a ministry background and all ages are welcome, especially high school students interested in agriculture-based degrees and 4-H students.
Vanegas will be the keynote speaker at the upcoming Lutheran Women’s Missionary League rally in Callaway Monday, Oct 16. Vanegas will speak at approximately 10 a.m., at Beautiful Savior Lutheran Church in Callaway. Registration is from 9–9:30 a.m. For more information visit the events page at Lwmlmnn.org.
Firefly Fields Youth Ranch information can be found online at fireflyfieldsranch.wixsite.com/ffyr or on its Facebook page.