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News for Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Ministering at TBCH Boys Ranch
By Connie Davis Bushey
news editor, Baptist and Reflector

MILLINGTON — He has had some “tough” experiences, said Jeff Epps, who as a U.S. Army Ranger and soldier served in Desert Shield and Desert Storm in Kuwait and Iraq, earning a Bronze Star with Valor.

Even more difficult were struggles he endured during his adolescence as a result of the abandonment of his father, his rebellion against his step-father, and some bad decisions after leaving the Army even after committing his life to Christ at age 25.

Yet Epps is convinced those situations prepared him to serve as director of the Double “B” Boys Ranch of Tennessee Baptist Children’s Homes here.

During his 15 years on the staff here, the tough experiences have continued. Yet he believes God called him here for the boys.

“God didn’t give up on me so why should I give up on them?” asked Epps, referring to the about 200 boys he has worked with at the Boys Ranch over the years and the 25 he currently cares for.

“We’re not talking about a tractor. This is not a cow. This is a soul that God has created,” he noted.

“We break the ground so to speak in these kids’ lives.”


Double “B”

On 250 rolling acres outside of metropolitan Memphis is a busy, working farm managed by the 13-member staff and the boys ages 11-18, who come from families and relatives but also through recommendations of the court and child services systems.

They care for 75 head of cattle. They also care for horses, chickens, rabbits, llamas, and sheep. The boys learn welding, wood working, and mechanics at the ranch. They also attend a nearby school.

Of course, they additionally attend a nearby Baptist church which explains the name — the Double “B” — a historic name standing for “Baptist boys,” explained Epps.

Up to eight boys live in each home here with houseparents. Boys who are in college or other schools may also live in independent living accommodations at the ranch until they graduate. Currently the average boy stays about 18 months.

The busy schedule for the boys imposes the structure of the Boys Ranch, explained Epps, which is needed by boys, especially those who are troubled.

Most are so busy trying to survive that they get caught up in a “fight or flight mode,” he explained. Structure, the farm life, and “the love of Christ” is what they need.

Thankfully, the TBCH Boys Ranch does not charge any family for a boy’s stay at the ranch and it does not receive any government funds, he noted. The TBCH is funded through Baptists’ Cooperative Program and the TBCH Mother’s Day Offering.


The boys

When Epps and his family began serving at the Boys Ranch in 1999 they served as houseparents. He and Lisa, his wife, brought two children with them and had another while they were in that role.

During those years many boys stayed longer than most do now. Of course, they formed a family, described Epps. Often it seemed they were living the life of the Waltons portrayed in the TV show.

“I never treated a young man any different than our children.”

He will never forget after Lisa had their daughter Sarah and the whole family including eight boys, their son, and their daughter arrived at the hospital. Epps said he will never forget one of the boys, Wesley Fason, sitting and holding Sarah, tears streaming down the face of that seemingly tough cowboy.

He has had many other experiences he will never forget, he said. Over the years he has been the best man in many weddings. Men who are former residents regularly visit him and Lisa. Several stay in constant touch with them. The Epps consider the boys as sons and their children as their grandchildren.

“This is home to them,” explained Epps.

They also are visited often by boys who haven’t done well after leaving the ranch. They come back basically to see if he still loves them, Epps reported.


Families today

The Boys Ranch is not a drug rehab center or equipped to deal with other traumatic situations, explained Epps. He and the staff must provide for the safety of all of the boys as they assess if they can meet the needs of a potential resident, explained Epps.

So he must reject boys which “breaks my heart. …

“I see the effect of Satan in the world. The devil’s got a hold on our young people. … We’ve got a fight on our hands.”

He sees young people who think they are entitled, understand that they have rights, and who are “exposed to the worldly views out there.”

In dealing with their families Epps said he feels like a foreign missionary speaking another language.

Many boys at the ranch have been forsaken by their families and especially their fathers, he said, and are in trouble as a result of that. Many go back to their families before they are “healthy,” he added.

Yet he often will see a boy accomplish something on the farm and realize that he’s “not junk, not a throw away. … He does something here and realizes that he matters.”

The residents also learn that they need Jesus from their houseparents, the social worker, church leaders, and from him and Lisa and their two daughters still at home, said Epps.

To be sure he still spends time with the boys though he is an administrator, he still helps them work the farm and care for the animals, possibly also to relieve stress.

He and Lisa, who grew up on farms around animals, brought “baggage and problems from our past. We didn’t fit the exact mold here. …

“I’m simply amazed at the love and the grace and the mercy in my own life and that God has prepared and equipped me to give that back in a ministry. …

“It’s tough. I would be lying to you if I didn’t say it was tough today. …

“We do nothing more than break the ground. … I would love to see what the harvest is but we usually don’t,” said Epps.

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