Much like a typical Park County mountain road, the path to ultimate fulfillment for Como’s Jackie Wille was winding, unpredictable and sometimes treacherous.
Wille spent the first portion of her life in dogged pursuit of a lofty but illusive dream.
Despite ever-challenging circumstances that often made her idealistic vision for happiness appear unattainable, she never surrendered or lost hope.
Eventually, the course of Wille’s life took several unlikely turns that led her to the heart of South Park, and ultimately, to the doorstep of her dream. Once there, almost singlehandedly, Wille spent 15 years making the road for hundreds of at-risk youth smoother than it would have otherwise been.
“God’s had a hand on me for all my life,” Wille said.
Wille housed more than 200 at-risk boys between 11 and 18-years-old at her Como ranch from 2002-17. Housing eight boys at a time, she utilized horses as her primary tool for teaching and healing at her one-of-a-kind group home.
“I knew I wanted to live in the mountains, have horses and work with kids in some way,” Wille said. “That dream became a reality known as Promised Land Ranch, a group home for at-risk youth.”
Wille, much like the boys who passed through her home, survived a twisted and oft-challenging journey before reaching the vast expanses of Promised Land Ranch. She survived an abusive husband for 17 years, found herself selling vacuum cleaners in Michigan for a period of time, and struggled through difficult economic times in Tulsa, Okla. during what she refers to as perhaps the “lowest point” in her life. Nearing the end of her first marriage in 1988, she lived in a tent for a period of time due to financial hardship.
She remarried in 1989 to Dan Wille, a welder and fabricator who shared her love for children, as well as the mountains. Jackie and Dan moved to Colorado where they assisted at a seven-bedroom foster care facility near Sterling, Colo.
They continued in that line of work for about seven years, then moved to Parker, Colo., where they continued their work with youth at another facility for two more years. At that time, Jackie’s knack for utilizing horses as a teaching tool was already drawing accolades. So much so, that The Denver Post once published a feature story on her unique teaching methods and the positive results they were yielding for Colorado at-risk youth.
Meanwhile, Dan was becoming a hit with the kids as well.
“Dan knew what he was getting into when he married me,” Wille said with a laugh. “He was great with the kids, taught them to weld, and to build, and we had goats, horses, and did hayrides for the kids, as well as disabled adults. I was part of the way to my dream at that time, but I still wasn’t there. We decided to move to the mountains, and the search for the Promised Land Ranch and the fulfillment of my dream started in earnest.”
The real estate agent for the Willes showed them 28 properties before Jackie found the one she wanted. They purchased the chosen property contingent upon having a foster home at the location, but the process took a full year to complete. The Willes finalized the deal in 2002, moved in, and almost immediately began admitting at-risk boys.
Sadly, Dan suddenly became ill and passed away in 2003, leaving the ranch and boys for Jackie to run on her own.”
“My son and daughter helped me a lot, and my son actually moved here and worked with the boys for a period of time after Dan passed away,” Wille said. “But it was just me and eight boys most of the time.”
Most of the boys admitted to the home hailed from the Denver-Metro area, and all of them attended school in Fairplay while living at the ranch. Each boy had an outdoor and indoor chore to complete before taking the bus to school, and each repeated those chores after school. The mornings began and the boys rose from bed at 5:30 a.m., regardless of the season.
The boys chopped and stacked wood, fed and cared for animals, cleaned and landscaped outdoor portions of the property, built and repaired fences, did their own laundry, cooked their own meals, cleaned up after each meal, and much more at the ranch.
They also learned social and life skills, including but not limited to following directions, accepting the answer, “no,” and how to apply for jobs. Spare time was spent mastering multiplication tables and competing to see who could do them fastest. Journal-keeping and goal-setting were also important pieces of the kids’ everyday activities.
The program consisted of a “levels model” that ultimately concluded at the peak of a hypothetical mountain. The mountain was aptly named Silverheels. The real Mount Silverheels, rising to heights of almost 14,000 feet, dominates the skyline as one looks in a westerly direction from the ranch. The ranch itself is situated at 9,800 feet above sea level.
“The environment here is so different than the ones in which most of these kids came from,” Wille noted. “That sort of got their attention right away.”
While Wille’s determined journey to the Promised Land Ranch constitutes a story unto itself, it is the countless stories about the kids she served that she most enjoys telling today.
There was the time the boys woke in the middle of the night and called 911 because of what they referred to as a ‘faceless man staring at them.’
“I asked them how they could tell the faceless man was staring at them, but never got a satisfactory answer,” Wille said.
“We had a few runaways,” Wille said. “I would follow along behind them in my car, and how long it took them to get in usually depended on the weather. They usually didn’t get too far. I’d just follow them until they asked to get in the van. One time a kid jumped into another car and told the driver that I was trying to kill him. The highway patrol stopped them on Kenosha Pass. That took a while to sort out, but I eventually got him back home. Another kid walked nine miles before giving in, so we named a nearby ridge after him.”
Wille also recalled the time a Sheriff’s deputy came to the house because one of the boys had become unmanageable. Wille explained that the boy had not done his chores that morning, and that he had been inconsolable all day. The deputy asked what chore had been neglected, and promptly escorted him upstairs.
“He and the boy went upstairs, cleaned the upstairs bathroom together, and then he left,” Wille recalled. “The deputy went way beyond the normal call of duty on that occasion. The Park County Sheriff’s Office was always terrific when they had to come out here. They got calls from me sometimes, and other times from the boys. The boys loved to call them.”
Wille also credits teachers and coaches in the Park County School District in Fairplay, as well as the Fairplay community as a whole, for always accepting and assisting the boys who came through her home.
“This community was always amazingly supportive, and their influence and acceptance of the kids was very important to their development,” Wille said. “Some kids even got jobs around town. I remember one boy saying ‘Why would I ever work full time when I make this much money with a part-time job?’ But the boys always got cookies and gifts at Christmas, and were always welcomed at church, social events and sporting events.”
Wille employed a multitude of clever tactics to help her cope with day-to-day challenges on the ranch. One night the kids would not go to sleep, so she ordered them all to assemble downstairs at the dining room table.
“I put them there at the table with nothing to do and a Christian television program playing in the background,” Wille said. “Within an hour, they were begging to go back to bed. We also had a sleepwalker for a while, and one night he came into my room, sound asleep, saying ‘What’s twelve times twelve, Jackie?’ That was a little bit startling. We had motion detectors outside, and they were constantly going off.”
Some boys stayed a short time at the ranch, and some stayed for years. One boy in particular stayed from the age of 11 until the time he graduated at South Park High School.
“That kid was so into our program that he asked his mom for gloves and a hay hook for his birthday,” Wille said. “We had others who also stayed here for several years. A lot of them come back to visit and ask if I remember them. I tell them to tell me their name first, and then I’ll tell them if I remember them. Two boys came to visit recently. One had a great job and was doing fine, and the other one had just gotten out of jail.”
What Wille couldn’t handle when it came to the boys, which wasn’t much, the horses usually could. Horses were always the centerpiece of her program, and her love for the animals often rubbed off on the kids.
“When I was young, I was fascinated with teaching horses different tricks and commands,” Wille said. “I was obsessed with training them, and I was especially obsessed with teaching them to kneel, or to lay down.”
That obsession never subsided, and at one time she had about two dozen horses on the ranch. She estimates that she has used the services of about 60 different horses over the years. Because horses are keenly in tune to human tendencies, body language and emotions, they don’t respond well to a rider or trainer who is not comfortable, or emotionally at ease.
Wille said the progress of particular kids could generally be measured by the comfort level, or lack thereof, of their assigned horses.
“I would often tell them ‘Your horse’s ears are back, and you need to do something about it,’” Wille said. “Our first rule was that the horse was never at fault. I used the horses mainly to teach problem-solving, communication and patience.”
One horse in particular, a small Arabian named Little Gray, came to her because its previous owner said it was useless and could not be tamed. Wille took the horse anyway, and on the way to the ranch it cut its own legs badly by bucking frantically in the trailer.
“I called a vet out because the horse’s legs were beat up and bleeding everywhere,” Wille recalled. “The vet said she had seen the horse before, and that there was no way she would get near it. She said I should put the horse down, and refused to work on it. After months and months of working with the horse, it finally got better and learned to lie down so I could get on and off, learned to say ‘yes’ and ‘no,’ and eventually became our little mascot. I still have the Little Gray today.”
“I apply that to kids as well. That horse had been deemed a throw-away horse, and many of the boys I had here had been deemed throw-away kids. The kids are not born bad, but instead, are the product of sorry programs or dysfunctional homes. All in all, I’ve had a lot of really good kids here.”
Wille never gave up on a kid, and never gave up on a horse. Fortunately for horses and kids alike at Promised Land Ranch, she never gave up on her dream, either.