Karen Leeseberg has been supporting Dakota Boys and Girls Ranch, either herself or through her parents, since she was born. Her father was a pastor, so the family contributed to a lot of Lutheran organizations. In Karen's mind, Ranch honey is tied to fond memories of her childhood.
"We always had Ranch honey on the table," Karen said. "All I knew was that the Ranch was a place for troubled kids, and they sent us honey."
Despite moving around a lot, Karen had a great childhood and a wonderful family. Her husband, Jerry, grew up in very different circumstances.
"While Karen's family was open and caring and emotionally supportive, mine was distant," Jerry said. "My dad was a workaholic, and my mom became bitter and unpleasant after contracting tuberculosis and spending 18 months in a sanitarium."
Jerry said he understands the plight of Ranch children so well because he survived a similar childhood. "I have a heart for kids at the Ranch because I went through a light version of what they go through."
When Jerry's mom was in the sanitarium, he and his younger sister were watched over by Aunt Faye, "who wasn't really our aunt," he said. "We never did know how she was connected to our family. She was an alcoholic and addicted to gambling and cards. Lots of days, there wasn't food on the table because she spent the money on drinking and gambling."
They didn't tell their Dad what was going on because he was already under so much stress—working long hours and spending any spare moment with their mother. But, when Jerry was in third grade, his sister begged him to talk to their father.
"I finally got some time alone with him, told him the situation, and in a couple days she was gone," Jerry said.
Jerry and Karen met in Louisiana where she was an elementary teacher at a Lutheran school and Jerry was part-owner of a small retail company. They knew of each other because Jerry was the treasurer of the church where Karen taught, and he kept misspelling her name. Her maiden name was Bailey and he kept leaving out the "e," which Karen finds ironic considering his last name, Leeseberg, is filled with e's. She wrote him a note asking him to please get her name right.
They met in person when a few faculty members at the school asked Karen to babysit during a dinner—she could sit at the table but was to keep an eye on the kids. Jerry was a guest at that dinner and was seated across from Karen—with several kids between them and the other adults. They talked for hours about Russian history—both are history buffs—and two years later they were married.
A few years into their marriage they decided to adopt children through the foster care system in Louisiana. They adopted sisters, Amanda and Danielle. Two weeks before the adoption was to be finalized, their social worker, along with four other people carrying black bags, came to their home.
"The only thing this could mean is that we were losing our kids," Jerry said. "We had been promised financial assistance, and they discovered we weren't eligible. They based the assistance on the birth parent's financial situation and their ability to collect welfare. Ninety-nine percent of birth parents qualified, but Amanda and Danielle's parents, while low income, didn't qualify for welfare. Which meant we weren't eligible for assistance."
Their social worker said they had less than five minutes to decide if they wanted to keep them. "We told her, 'This is their forever home. Of course, we'll keep them,'" Jerry said.
For a variety of reasons, they moved to Flower Mound, Texas in 2004, five years after they adopted the girls. Jerry continued his career in Information Technology and Accounting and Karen worked as a librarian in the Business Library at Southern Methodist University, where she still works.
Soon after they moved to Texas, Al Evon, a representative from Dakota Boys and Girls Ranch, visited them. The Ranch was looking for board members who weren't from North Dakota. Karen and Jerry were prospects because of their long giving history. They learned from Evon that the Ranch was about so much more than honey.
Jerry joined the Ranch board of directors in 2011, where he remains an honorary board member. For years, he has volunteered his time and expertise to the Ranch, attending monthly IT meetings, and making recommendations for IT policies, procedures, and purchases. He continues to bless the Ranch through his wisdom and knowledge about automation and technology.
Throughout their long and fascinating story, Jerry and Karen have continued to support the Ranch financially. Karen said they tend to give very generally, which is different than what many donors choose to do. They give to the general fund rather than to pet projects.
Jerry said they like taking the less common path—in giving and in other parts of their lives. "God has empowered us and equipped us to go where others don't want to go. Just like our decision to adopt children no one else wanted, we choose to give to the general fund of the Ranch. We trust God and Ranch leaders to use it where it is needed most."
In addition to their annual giving, Jerry and Karen have named the Ranch as a beneficiary in their will. They have visited all three Ranch campuses several times, and Karen said the tours solidified their decision to support the Ranch now and after they are gone.
"I think the reason we give to the Ranch is because we really believe in the work you do," Karen said. "There are thousands of good charities out there, but none of them are like the Ranch. Helping kids grow up so they are not dysfunctional, breaking the cycle so they don't go on to perpetuate the problem is huge. And then you add the spiritual component to that—giving those kids the opportunity to understand that not only are they loved here on earth, but they are loved eternally by God. What the Ranch does is a great long-term investment."
For Jerry, giving to the Ranch is a very personal decision.
"These kids are alone. If that doesn't get cured, they are alone all their lives. They are afraid. I was alone much of my life. Other than Karen and her family, I didn't have anyone," Jerry said.
"The Ranch teaches kids how to not be alone, how to be social, how to link into their communities. Every place you look, the Ranch excels. I've volunteered in programs down here, and in many instances, it was considered a good day if the kids didn't riot. At the Ranch, people care. They are educated and have expertise specific to the needs of these kids."
"The Ranch is the only organization I've run into that gives kids their lives back."