In 2005, the lives of the Finn family changed forever.
Steve Finn, Executive Director for Chestnut Mountain Ranch in Morgantown, was born in West Virginia and his family has a long history in the state dating back to the 1700s. His father tragically passed away and at the age of 13, his mother, in search of employment, moved them to Atlanta, Georgia.
Now transplanted into a new world, Steve found himself on a wayward path of raising himself and harbored bitterness towards God for taking away his father. Early on his mother would take him to church but that, unfortunately, did not continue through his teen years.
At age 21, while attending college, he was invited to join a friend at church, and he went. Steve did as he called it ‘a one-eighty’ and gave his life to God. When that happened, he landed on Ephesians 2 in the Bible.
When he read the passage, Steve began questioning, “What am I created for. God, why am I here?” At that point and in a relatively short time frame, Steve walked away from a destructive lifestyle and pursued a career in law enforcement.
For 12 years Steve enjoyed working in the Atlanta area. He did detective work and worked on a gang unit the last few years he was there.
“When I was working on the streets with the gang unit,” Steve said, “I felt like God was honing my life for some bigger purpose. I wasn’t really sure what it was at the time.
“My wife and I began to pray about what that would look like and that God would reveal it to us in a clear way. He began opening the doors and connecting the dots.”
Steve went to visit a friend at a ministry in North Georgia called Eagle Ranch. The Eagle Ranch is a Christ-centered program for boys and girls that focus on renewing the lives of the children as well as their families during a time of struggle. The ranch has been around for over 30 years. After the visit, both Steve and his wife Dawn fell in love with the program. They walked by faith and put their careers on hold to go and be house parents for three years making only $10,000 a year.
“It transformed our lives. We saw a program that worked. We saw a program that was changing these young boys into godly men and we were seeing families restored. I said, ‘This is what we were created for. Let’s start looking around the country for an area where God would have us replicate this.’ So, I started doing research and West Virginia kept coming up with the highest drop-out rates, poverty rates, and suicide rates. The need was phenomenal.”
Steve researched more to find out who had already gone before them. Were there any homes already in place that they could work with and what other faith-based programs were in the state? To his dismay, there were none in West Virginia.
The decision was made to give it twelve months. They wanted to see if God was in it and pursue setting up a boys home in the state debt free. With enough savings to keep them afloat for a year, the Finn’s set out on a journey of a lifetime.
“Ten years ago, we drove off a cliff,” Steve remembered.
The first year, 2005, was rough. Steve and Dawn didn’t know anyone, and it was hard to relay their vision to potential donors to help purchase the land debt free.
With no land, their money was dwindling, and nearing the end of the twelve months, the family was at a breaking point spiritually, emotionally, and financially.
“Everything just seemed like it was crumbling,” Steve added. “Those were not fun times, but they were necessary times.”
Then there was a break in the drought. The land became available, and the owner gave them a chance, allowing them to purchase the lot debt free.
“We had four-hundred dollars in the bank after closing. So, we owned land, but we were broke again. There were no roads and no utilities. It was just a big, thick, wooded mountain. But we had burned our ships, and we said, ‘We’re here.’
“It has never been bankrolled; it has been a dripping faucet. God keeps it dripping just enough to allow us to grow.”
The land, beautiful as it was, had no infrastructure and required vast amounts of work just to clear and make roads before even considering the buildings. Over a mile of water lines and underground utilities were the priority. The vision Steve had, he knew God would lead him to achieve, and he patiently worked, project by project, completing one and on to the next–all debt free.
“God has provided.” Steve proclaimed. “Through mission teams, discounted materials, donated materials, and we use what we can. We can stretch a dollar. We’ve gotten really good at that. That ability is being spoken into the community, and we have seen an increase in support.
“To date, the administration building and the school has been open for five years. There are two boys homes open, and we are averaging two calls per week for children. The more the word gets out, the more our phone is ringing.
“Our vision is to have seventy children out here, so we are having five more boys homes built. We’ll start on home number three after the school’s done. The school is going up now, and it will accommodate up to 70 children.”
At the moment, Chestnut Mountain Ranch only houses boys. Eventually, Steve would like to see a girls ranch somewhere nearby.
Steve added, “Single sex focus at this age is very impactful. We’ve got these kids for a season, and they’ve got their baggage, and it’s generational. If they are distracted, it could prolong their stay. Our goal is to get them home to a healthy home environment. Our program not only is working with the child, but it focuses on the family as a whole.
“Every situation is different. It’s us coming alongside the family saying, ‘You’re not a bad child. You were called here by God for a season of your life, and we are going to pour into you. We are going to hold you accountable while you’re here but, we are going to find your strengths. We are going to find your Ephesians 2 and help you figure that out.’”
The average stay for the boys is around two years, and the goal of the program is reunification to their family, either parents or a member of their family. They try to find a family member willing to walk alongside the team and help them on the journey as well as the boys.
The school curriculum varies upon the need of the child. When they arrive, most of the boys are grade levels behind but having a five to one student/teacher ratio allows for personalized instruction based on where the child is at and designed primarily for the boy’s learning abilities.
“We are a Christian ministry,” Steve said, “but we have at-risk children in a unique environment.
“Counseling is great. Therapy is great. Medicine helps some people, and education is great but unless Christ is at the center of everything we do we are just spinning our wheels. We feel that our calling is so strong here at the Ranch that this is not just about fixing a kid this is about meeting that child again one day on the other side. We feel that only Christ can heal these generational wounds that have been handed down.
“I know that we are in America, but the mission field is wide open.
“We left the comfort of a steady paycheck in law enforcement, and we put everything on the line. I think this experience has strengthened and stretched my marriage. It has strengthened and stretched my position as a father over my own children. My children have seen miracles over the years that has strengthened their faith.
“When five of us are living in a little single-wide trailer for seven years, you learn to become very close. You learn to pray together.”
Steve draws inspiration from the well-known Christian evangelist George Muller. Muller believed in praying and had faith to receive. Whatever the need was, he believed God would provide and chose to rely solely on his prayer requests to God. He is known to have cared for over 10,000 orphans and provided education that was beyond compare for his time. That is the approach Chestnut Mountain Ranch takes.
“This is not my ranch,” Steve said. “This is not my ministry. We are part of it just like the principle and counselors are a part, and I am honored to be here for a season but, this is going to go beyond me.
“I would love to see this model spread throughout this state. I would love to see other denominations come in and meet the needs in certain areas here. There is a phenomenal need from end to end. I would like to see a girls program. I would also like to see some significant changes in the way West Virginia approaches child care.”
The Ranch focuses on healing and restoration for the kids, but it goes far beyond that.
“The Ranch is not just about the children; it has built this community,” Steve added. “It has built bridges between denominations. We’ve got churches working shoulder-to-shoulder with other churches out here and it has created a mission field right here in the backyard of Morgantown.
“We are welcoming anyone that can fog a mirror to come out. I don’t care if you can do framing, make a quilt, or bake lasagna, we can find a need for you.”
Ladies have made quilts for the boys. People have donated cars, and mechanics spend time with the kids helping them restore cars and keep the Ranch’s vehicles running.
“Our program is three-fold: education, family counseling, and home life,” Steve explained. “The boys homes is where the child experiences a stable home environment. They have a house mom and dad, and they get up and do chores. They have breakfast as a family. They have devotions as a family. It is structured where we are meeting the child where they are at and then during the day family members are receiving counseling.
“We keep these kids busy. We’re going to teach them to give back.”
The boys are active in physical education and activities. They have even adopted a recently widowed woman with no family. They take care of the lawn and plan on doing the snow removal this winter. They also hope to do some small home repairs.
The older boys work at the Ranch Community Store where they can earn a paycheck. The high-end thrift store sits in a 16,000 square foot warehouse on Don Knotts Boulevard and accepts a variety of items. They even offer a pick-up service for larger items. Sales from the store go to help support the Ranch and school.
“We help them open a savings account, and we are teaching them to not only earn a paycheck but to save. We ask, ‘What kind of car do you want? Let’s dream about this and move towards launching you into manhood and getting some things.’ ”
For the upcoming Christmas season, Steve was inspired, after speaking to a friend and pastor about the success of Franklin Graham’s Shoebox Ministry, a part of Operation Christmas Child, to implement a program that would be successful through allowing anyone to become involved. Compartmentalizing the activity worked for the Shoebox Ministry and they wanted to try something similar. After his wife Dawn had suggested mason jars, the idea bloomed. The Change the Course program, started a few weeks ago, has received a great response from the community and local churches. People can put their extra change in the jars and leave it in the cup holders of their cars, making it easy for kids or adults to participate. The Ranch provides the jars and once filled, individuals return them and allow all those pennies to add up!
“This program is making a huge impact on our finances,” Steve affirmed.
If a church, business, or organization is interested in the Change the Course program or in hearing more about the Ranch, Steve is available to do a presentation to fit the need of the location. He has given anywhere from 4 minutes to hour-long speeches and attends business leader luncheons, Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday services and has a variety of video and photo content. His typical presentation time is around 20 minutes. Tony Caridi, ‘The Voice of the Mountaineers,’ narrates the video content and the testimonies of the boys allow the viewer to see first hand the impact the program has had in their life.
In August, Steve was recognized as a national leader who has made a difference in the lives of others. He was named one of three finalists for the 2016 John C. Maxwell Award. The nominations each year for this award number in the thousands and the list narrowed to 100 then to 3.
John C. Maxwell is a pastor, author, inspirational speaker, and leader. Based in South Florida, his company travels the country holding conferences focusing on leadership. You can read more about him at www.johnmaxwell.com.
“This has been an incredible journey,” Steve remarked. “When you’re nominated for something that had thousands of entries, it’s more than an honor to make the first cut to 100, let alone the top three. I enjoy what I do so much, that to be recognized for the work just makes it that much more special.
“My wife and I got to go to Orlando, Florida and got to share God’s story to 3,400 people at the conference. It was excellent timing because we also have a book coming out. It’s being published now. It’s called Seed to Vision. It is a story of when God plants a seed in your life–a stirring–how do you take that to reality and how do you move beyond the stirring or the tap on the shoulder.
“I am just telling my story. It is peppered with police stories and some crazy things that have happened at the Ranch.”
The Ranch has made a lasting impression on the local community and continues to follow the vision that God has laid out for the future.
“The biggest assets of this Ranch is the impact it is having on West Virginia as a whole,” Steve said. “This program works. I have seen it work for 15 years now; starting at Eagle Ranch and then coming to West Virginia. We have never lost our ties to Eagle Ranch and in fact, are taking the boys to a leadership trip down there. I would not have walked away from a promising career in federal law enforcement had I not seen this program work first hand.
“God is alive and well here in West Virginia. Despite all the statistics of what we hear in the news lately. I was just at a roundtable discussion in Harrison County where I found out 50 percent of births in the county test positive for opiates. It is the worst in the nation. Ground zero for the whole nation.
“I just want people to know that there is a ministry unfolding here that could set the stage for substantial change in the way the state looks at childcare. I want the state to send the kids here. I don’t want their dollars; I want their kids.”
The Ranch is a 501 (c) (3) non-profit organization that is privately funded and does not take state or federal dollars for its operations.
Overall, Steve, his wife Dawn, his children, and all the staff at Chestnut Mountain Ranch boys home and school have poured themselves into a mold that only God could make for them to fill. Each one, perfectly formed and placed in the perfect location to fulfill a promise. A promise that God made to provide all of His children’s needs–they only need to ask, and it shall be given. The lives that have been transformed, the lives that have been blessed, and the lives that in the future which will be able to partake in the glorious outpouring of love and nurturing that the Ranch provides, cannot be measured by the standards of man because the blessing of the Lord is priceless in heaven.
Visit the Ranch Community Store at https://www.ranchstore.org/