The Gift of Gratitude: Helping Teens Learn the Difference Between Needs and Wants
By Meghan Vivo
Sitting on the ground in a six-foot circle outlined by rocks, a rebellious 16-year-old stares at a sign that reads, “If you own it, you can change it.” From early in the morning until late in the evening, the young man’s only assignment is to think about who he is and how he has arrived at this point.
This experience, called “impact circle,” is how adolescents struggling with defiance, depression, low self-esteem, mood disorders, and other emotional and psychological issues spend their first few days at Turn-About Ranch, an adolescent residential treatment center on a real, working ranch in southern Utah.
At “Roundy,” the area of Turn-About Ranch where teens transition from life at home to life on the ranch, most students start out confused, overwhelmed, and angry at their parents for sending them to the program. Some threaten to run away, some actually try – but all end up back in the circle, contemplating their choices and staring at that sign.
Outside observers wonder, “What could be gained from sitting inside a circle of rocks?” Quiet time to think, respect for authority, and most of all, a sense of gratitude for the gifts and privileges they’ve taken for granted at home.
Getting Back to Basics
At Roundy teens see what life would be like without all of the rights and liberties they simply expect at home. At night, students sleep in a cabin-like structure with only the most basic comforts. The teens have to earn a mattress, pillow, and shower by demonstrating good behavior and respect.
In the impact circle, teens eat oatmeal cooked over a pot on a campfire for breakfast, trail mix for lunch, and noodle soup for dinner. They are given a couple pairs of jeans, shirts, socks, and other standard clothing items, and are expected to wash their own clothes and hang them on the clothes line. Living in a primitive cabin with no running water or electricity, students have to bring in water from the creek for bathing and cleaning up.
The goal is not to make the teens miserable, but to teach them the difference between needs and wants. As part of this back to basics approach, teens know that their needs for food, clothing, and shelter will be met, but everything else must be earned.
Each student has a number of chores at Roundy, ranging from taking care of the chickens, pigs, and cows to splitting fire wood to building a fence or doing some other work project. As a functioning horse and cattle ranch, there’s never a shortage of work that needs to be done. For students who have earned the privilege, they can play horseshoes or other games after dinner, practice leadership and teamwork on the ropes course, take an hour of quiet time, or discuss the day’s events and issues with the group.
Earning Privileges, Appreciating Rewards
Wayne Stinson is a brave and supremely patient program supervisor and caretaker who oversees the students during this segment of their journey. “When students arrive at Roundy, I tell them that all privileges are earned from here on,” he says. “We have rules that have to be followed and goals that have to be reached before the kids earn the luxuries they’ve always taken for granted at home.”
Wayne doesn’t accept excuses, lack of effort, or any statement that begins with “I can’t.” His approach is fair, even-handed, and loving, but firm. He appeals to the basic logic of each student: “I ask the students if what they’re doing makes them happy,” he says. “If not, then lets find another option. It’s the definition of crazy to make the same mistake over and over and expect a different result.”
Sometimes Wayne sees the talents and gifts of his students before they can. He describes his philosophy as, “I don’t want to change who these kids are. Each one is unique to the world and has something special to offer. But I do want them to change what they’re doing.” Although Wayne presents plenty of opportunities for improvement, the teens have to make the choice themselves.
When students start to veer away from fulfilling their potential, the students will hear one of Wayne’s many mantras echoing in their heads, including “Start being who you is and stop being who you isn’t.”
After a couple of weeks at Roundy, most students will proceed to Turn-About Ranch’s lodge or barn areas where the teens attend school, participate in group and individual therapy, complete ranch chores like bucking hay and caring for the animals, and learn horsemanship skills from real ranchers. If the teens follow the rules and show respect for the other students and staff, they will continue learning and growing until the program ends. If the students become defiant, break the rules, or otherwise act out, they may return to Roundy.
According to Wayne, the program at Turn-About Ranch doesn’t start until the student starts it. Impact circle can last a few short days or many days, depending on whether the student works through some of their denial and defiance or continues to act out.
Because of his straight-talk approach and keen sense of humor, Wayne is regarded by students as one of the most memorable and cherished parts of the ranch experience. Students make introducing their parents to Wayne a priority during the mid-term visit, and insist, after three months on the ranch and months away from Roundy, on saying goodbye before they depart.
What the Students Say
One would think that being taken to a ranch in the middle of Utah, being stripped of the comforts of home, and being told where to go and what to do by an authority figure that doesn’t bend the rules would be an experience that teenagers would detest and rebel against. But if you talk to the students at Turn-About Ranch, whether toward the beginning of their stay at Roundy or at the end of their three-month treatment period, you’ll find that most students believe Roundy is one of the most enriching and life-changing experiences at the ranch.
“When I got here, I was so mad at my parents for sending me here,” says a 15-year-old Texas native who had spent just over a week at Roundy. “All I could think was ‘What is a circle of dirt going to do for me?’ I saw life as a joke before I came here and did a lot of stupid things. Impact circle gave me time to think about things I had never thought about before. I started to realize how much I took everything for granted and started becoming grateful for every little thing.”
A 17-year-old Arizona resident said, “Impact was probably three of the worst days of my life, but I’m so glad I did it. I learned a lot about myself and had time to reflect on why I’m here. I’ve been to lots of other programs and this is definitely my favorite.”
One of the most important lessons teens learn at Roundy is that there is in fact a problem with their behavior. One teenage boy said, “When I first got here I didn’t even realize why I was here. I didn’t have respect for anyone; I thought I was the boss of everyone around me. Impact helped me accept the need to change.”
“It’s almost like my eyes are open and I’m awake now,” explained another student. “Before I didn’t realize what I was doing wrong; I thought my life was fine. Being here puts a lot of things into perspective. It took awhile – I mean, who would’ve thought they’d take my pillow away? But what’s changed is I’ve stopped taking things for granted and I respect everything now.”
For many students, impact circle is a shock. One student who recently showed her mom around Roundy at mid-term said, “Those first few days are the hardest days here at the ranch. You can’t talk to anyone, you eat plain food, and you’re thinking such negative thoughts like it’s not fair, why did they do this to me. It’s really rotten, but it can turn a brat to sense. Eventually, I realized it was up to me to decide to accept the situation and make the best of it.”
“Impact was the most challenging thing I’ve ever had to do,” says a 17-year-old Texas teen who is preparing to move on to the next stage of the Turn-About program. “At first all I could do is try to find a way out of here. This has been a big learning experience and still is, but I’m proud of myself for doing it and getting through. I think about home and I don’t know how I took things so for granted and how I treated my parents with no respect. No one wants to be sent away from their parents, but now I know they did it because they love me and want what’s best for me. When I see them, the first thing I’ll do is say ‘I love you’ and thank them for everything they’ve done.”
A New Jersey teen explained his experience in the impact circle: “I found myself by being by myself. I had no idea who I was, and now I’m working on finding my own happiness. My old life in New Jersey wasn’t really a life. I was just doing whatever was fun at the moment. I honestly never cared about anything, including my family. When I see my parents, I’ll probably say ‘I hate you but I love you.’ I didn’t want to come here, but now I know it’s important.”
Over time, students begin to realize that the ranch experience is an opportunity, not a curse. “Roundy really sets you up because you need time to stop being so angry, and to realize how lucky you really are. Once you start the program, and you start riding the horses and going to school, you realize that those things are a privilege rather than a hassle. I stopped going to school at home, but here I kind of look forward to it. This program changed me because I realized how much my family cares and that everything doesn’t revolve around me.”
An Attitude of Gratitude
Adopting an attitude of gratitude is one of the most life-changing lessons the students take away from Turn-About Ranch. Wayne teaches all students that “life is 10 percent what happens to you and 90 percent what you make of it.” Once students begin to embrace this lesson, Wayne says the light starts to return to their eyes and he can see them becoming who they are meant to be. By the end of their stay, the words “If you own it, you can change it” take on all new meaning and become an adage that sticks with them as they move forward with the rest of their lives.