The first thing you notice when you walk into The Ranch location of Red Roof Retreat are the smiles. Big, wide, happy smiles on the faces of the children walking, rolling around the grounds in wheelchairs or sitting under the shade of a tree, and the smiles are just as broad on the faces of the staff there to help the kids through their day.
Perhaps that’s not surprising. Red Roof Retreat was established in 2006 to be a place where children, teenagers and young adults with special needs, along with their families, would enjoy access to quality recreational and respite services. It offers a place for relationships to develop and lasting bonds to be nurtured through understanding and respect for each individual’s special needs.
But it isn’t Red Roof’s mandate that makes it so special. It’s the people who bring that mandate to life and make it real, starting with the organization’s executive director, Steffanie Bjorgan, and her dedicated staff. Together they’ve created a range of sensory-based programs and activities for children, geared toward their specific needs and recognizing their unique differences. Children can touch, feel, taste and hear different things, from putting something in their mouth, reaching through the fence surrounding the animal enclosure to pet a pony, goat or rabbit, or picking and eating a tomato.
Each client to The Ranch is different, Bjorgan explains. She and her team develop a profile on each one, noting their physical, emotional and cognitive needs. That’s important. Some children are driven crazy by background noise, others receive nourishment through a tube connected to their stomach, some enjoy repeatedly touching an object (such as a string of beads), while others like being read to or splashing their feet in a pool of water. Knowing the wants and needs of each client, and tailoring an experience geared to them, is key.
Understanding how to communicate with each client is equally important. Some clients to The Ranch communicate verbally as well as through facial expressions and hand movements. Others are less verbal. Tools such as pictograms, iPads and touch screens are used by Bjorgan and her team to communicate with the kids, and help them to respond.
A key feature of The Ranch is its size. The 11-acre property on Concession 6 in Niagara-on-the-Lake provides opportunities for special needs clients to walk on natural trails, interact with and ride horses, find a quiet place in the shade of a tree or to enjoy a range of other recreational features, including a playground and inflatable splash pool. In most cases, their days can be as active or as peaceful as they’d like them to be.
Not all clients to The Ranch are independently mobile. Some have special needs that make it difficult or impossible for them to participate in activities and programs without assistance, so staff make a point of bringing the activities those kids like directly to them. Yet another reason that it is such a happy place, so full of smiles.
“My goal here was to connect kids with special needs to nature and animals” says Bjorgan.
The Ranch is landlocked, surrounded by farms, providing a safe and inviting environment for clients to explore and enjoy.
But it just may be that the joy radiating through The Ranch each and every day is Bjorgan’s doing. It might have its genesis in the decisions that she and her family made when her second son was born with Cerebral Palsy in 1993. It could stem from the knowledge and commitment she brings to her work – in addition to earning a degree in child studies and education, Bjorgan taught at the elementary school level for 16 years, and participated in several pilot projects and services focussed on early interventions, screening and assessment, and teaching the non-verbal child.
Staff at Red Roof Retreat are also important factors in its success and the smiles it brings to the faces of clients. They’re dedicated, caring and willing to go the extra mile for the young people who come to Red Roof, up to and including visiting them in their homes.
Whatever the reason for the contentment of clients to The Ranch, it is clear that Garrett, Bjorgan’s second son, was the catalyst that sparked the creation of Red Roof Retreat.
“After we had Garrett, we had two choices,” she says. “You’re allowed to go through the grieving, then you make a choice. We chose to look at all the blessings.”
Today, Bjorgan says Red Roof Retreat was somewhat borne out of necessity – she had needed something to focus on at that time. Following Garrett’s birth, she and her husband Moe were a bit housebound at first. The family made some difficult choices together, including moving from their home in Queenston, which was on a hill and not well-suited to the needs of a child in a wheelchair, to a flatter property in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Then they decided to turn their new property into a small hobby farm. Shortly afterward, when she saw how much pleasure the farm gave Garrett, Bjorgan, a self-admitted type-A personality, began inviting a few families with special needs children to visit.
Back then, people did not really have a sense of what respite was, she says. Families needed a break from the day-to-day challenges and responsibilities of caring for a child with special needs, and kids needed a break from their day-to-day routines. She saw that need firsthand in the families who brought their children to the hobby farm, and with Moe’s support, decided to do something about it.
“It was a family decision,” she said about opening up their property to clients, and a few years later establishing Red Roof Retreat.
The timing of those decisions was fortuitous. The Ranch, a house and property ideally suited for Red Roof, was up for sale. Equally important, Michael Katz had recently opened a McDonald’s restaurant in Niagara-on-the-Lake, one of several McDonald’s franchises that the Katz family owns and manages in the Niagara region. When Steffanie went out looking for financial backing, both the Katz family and the Niagara-on-the-Lake Rotary Club stepped forward to help.
Both have contributed to Red Roof Retreat from day one, making a huge difference in the life of the not-for-profit organization and in the lives of the children, teens and young adults who visit its three facilities, as well as in the lives of their families.
The Katz family donated the seed money needed to launch Red Roof Retreat, with no strings attached. Some of those funds went toward bricks and mortar – allowing Bjorgan to purchase The Ranch in 2004 and to develop it into the safe, happy place it is today – some toward operations, from hiring staff to developing programs. Other key steps included forming a board of directors, and in 2005 obtaining a licence from the Province to operate the facility.
Today Red Roof Retreat has grown to include a community centre in St. Catharines where clients can take part in a range of recreational activities and social events, from bowling and swimming to teen nights and pizza dinners. Red Roof Retreat also owns Kevan’s House on Concession 2 in Niagara-on-the-Lake, which offers respite programs for adults on weekends as well as emergency residential care. The house is named after the late Kevan O’Connor, a well-known Niagara-on-the-Lake realtor, and key supporter of Red Roof Retreat from its inception.
In addition to the activities and programs offered at Red Roof’s three sites, Bjorgan and her team also take special needs children, teens and young adults out into their communities. It’s not unusual for a group from Red Roof Retreat to visit the community centre or to get out for a walk along the Niagara River Parkway.
Having supporters such as the Katz family, Rotary Club and O’Connor has been a key factor in the success of Red Roof Retreat. The organization receives no government funding, and relies primarily on donations to meet its annual $1.7 million operating budget. Only a small percentage of the costs of the programs it provides and the salaries of the trained staff who work at Red Roof’s facilities are paid for through user fees.
New donors and volunteers are always welcome. Volunteers don’t need special training (although they will need to obtain a clear criminal record check from Niagara Regional Police). All that’s required, said Bjorgan, “is a desire to help other people and commitment, along with a big, wide-open heart.”
She guarantees that if you do volunteer, “you’ll walk away from the experience a different person…You really learn to appreciate all the small things.”
For more information on Red Roof Retreat and its programs, as well as how to donate or get involved, visit: www.redroofretreat.com.
The Ranch – NOTL
The Ranch house is used for Red Roof Retreat’s adult day program on weekdays, allowing young adults with special needs who visited Red Roof Retreat as a child to continue their relationship with the program, as well as offering respite to new adult visitors and their families.
The program provides physical and personal care as well as social and emotional support, along with leisure and social activities to young adults (ages 21 to 40) with special needs.
Activities may include walks along the Niagara River Parkway, visits to the Butterfly Conservatory in Niagara Falls and the Bird Kingdom, and sports such as bowling. The program is designed to help get people with special needs out of their homes and involved in their communities in a safe and enjoyable way.
The Ranch also provides a children’s respite program during weekends. Typically five special needs children stay at The Ranch every weekend, enjoying a safe and fun experience, while their families enjoy a break.
Special needs visitors to The Ranch, of any age, may also enjoy horseback riding, as well as learn about feeding, grooming and tacking horses. Horseback riding can improve balance, posture, core strength, mobility and function, and help people with special needs in the areas of physical, cognitive, communications, emotional and social wellbeing.
Summer Camp is a key program at The Ranch. Red Roof Retreat’s summer day camps run for six weeks, beginning in July, for children from five to 16 years of age, providing a range of enjoyable, safe activities for special needs kids at The Ranch and the Niagara Children’s Centre.
Red Roof Retreat Community Centre – St. Catharines
The centre offers visitors the use of a therapeutic swimming pool, five-pin bowling alley and activity rooms. Programs include an adult day program, teen night, Saturday camp and Dads’ swim.
Teen night may include a pizza dinner with special guests, swimming, dances, bowling and movies.
Dads’ swim brings together fathers and their special needs children for pizza and a swim.
The Saturday Camp program includes outdoor play, music, special guests, crafts, swimming and bowling.
Kevan’s House – NOTL
Red Roof Retreat offers an adult respite program at the house on weekends, and emergency residential care throughout the week. Typically five adults (over 19 years of age) enjoy the weekend respite program at Kevan’s House on weekends.
For more information on the full range of programs offered by Red Roof Retreat, visit www.redroofretreat.com.