WILTON, Iowa — On Sunday afternoon, nearly 300 people were in Wilton to see just how miracles can happen.
The crowd was on hand for the ninth annual M and M Fest (the M's stand for music and miracles), an event put on by the Miracles Can Happen Boys Ranch, a nonprofit facility with a mission of reaching out and lending a hand to boys who've stumbled in life.
The event featured music from the Elim Arrival, a tour of the ranch, and other activities. It also gave the crowd a chance to meet the ranch's latest mission — the five boys currently being tended to at the ranch — as they mingled with the crowd.
The ranch is a Christian nonprofit that Jim and Cathy Fry founded in 1992 as "a refuge for boys in need of a safe and structured environment," as the Ranch is described on its website at mchboys.com.
Currently, the ranch is the home of five such boys: Chandler Redington, 15, Jordan and Jake Estermann, 15, Brandon Bartenhagen, 17, and Brandon Hogan, 17.
"There's a lot to do," said Bartenhagen, who's been on the ranch seven months. The boys participate in the everyday chores of running the ranch, which helps them develop a strong work ethic. But they also have the chance to play — basketball on the court in the paved driveway or football on the field beside the long gravel drive — and of course, in keeping with the Frys' goal to instill Christian values in their charges, they go to church.
"[Christian values are] things like keep your faith strong. Use your talents that you have to serve God," Jordan explained. He hadn't gone to church before coming to the Ranch, because, as a frequent runaway, he was rarely home in the first place. Jordan came to the ranch due to his smoking, drinking and drug use habits as well as a brush with gang life and getting kicked out of school. Eventually his behavior resulted in disorderly conduct and terrorism charges and he was faced with the option to go to the ranch — or to jail. He chose the ranch.
"I care — about everything, life — a lot more than I used to," he said. "I don't wanna go back to how I was. There's a lot of people I used to hang out with and since I've been here, like six of them are in jail now."
Although his time at the ranch is not yet over, Jordan already represents a success story for the experience and speaks easily about who he was and who he now is. But for others, the process is still difficult.
Hogan, whose negativity and bad attitude, along with a venture into devil worship, are what brought him to the ranch, admitted, "I miss being negative," and he confessed that his growth at the ranch has been a struggle. But he says that the struggle — now a year and a half long — is worth it.
"I have Jesus. I can count on Him in bad times," he said and, when he spoke to the crowd later, he added that he was happy to be alive, something that Jim emphasized was remarkable since Hogan had struggled with believing that life was worth living when he first came to the ranch.
All the boys have dreams, which they say their time at the ranch has made much more achievable than they were before.
Jordan, for example, wants to go to Motorcross. Redington, whose bad grades and disregard for schoolwork brought him to the ranch, is now earning A's or B's in all his classes and he plans on becoming a co-owner of his dad's two Subway restaurants and eventually expanding the family business once he's done with college.
Hogan's plans aren't as definite, but he knows he wants to do something with technology because, he said, "I'm great with computers."
Jake's still working on his plans for the future, but he does know he wants to go into the military, maybe to be a marksman. Regardless, he said, "I'm proud of where I'm at so far."
"[I want to] go to college and do something like being a doctor, like at the hospital, work with all the kids," Bartenhagen said. His dream reflects one of the things he likes best about being on the ranch: "I have fun helping [people]."
The boys got to meet an example of what their lives could be like after their time at the Ranch when Jason Olson, 34, stopped by Sunday. Olson stayed at the Ranch in the early '90s when the nonprofit was just getting started.
"They (the Frys) instilled family values [in me]. I didn't really have that when I was growing up," Olson said. He attended the M and M Fest with all seven of his children in tow, as well as his wife and mother-in-law and said he thought the ranch played a major role in the person he's become. "They taught me the meaning of a hard day's work and honesty and I try to live my life accordingly, try to pass on the same values to my kids."