Sierra, a 16-year-old on our Minot campus, recently shared her story with other residents during Ranch Life (a twice-monthly event where Ranch kids hear inspirational speakers or participate in a service project). While she talked about her childhood as one of abuse, abandonment, and rejection, she focused on joy and Jesus. She wanted the other residents to know they don't have to be defined by their past.
"After people hear some of what I've been through, they ask how I can be so joyful," Sierra said. "I laugh and tell them, 'Jesus! He is the answer to everything."
Despite the pain she has suffered, Sierra has learned to trust Jesus. Sierra said that through Jesus she has turned her pain into a desire to be thankful and to show people the good they have inside of them.
"While I'm here at the Ranch, my goal is to be thankful every day. To say thank you to Mrs. DeGree for helping. To thank the teachers because they don't get that thanks often enough. They spend their whole lives helping us, but how often do we appreciate it? I just want to ask them how their day is going, and to let them know how much they are helping."
When Sierra was five, her mom packed up their belongings and moved Sierra and her two brothers from New York to Kentucky. They moved in with her mom's new boyfriend and his mother.
"It wasn't right from the get-go," Sierra said. "Soon after we moved, my twin brother and I started getting beat. It became an everyday thing for us. There were times we'd go for a week without eating. And if we ate, it was a cracker here and there. We knew we had to eat on the sly, and a lot of times we weren't so lucky. My mom's boyfriend's mom beat us for eating."
Sierra said neighbors called social services a couple times. The first time, social services investigated and said everything was fine. The second time, they came to school to interview Sierra and her brother. Sierra said, "The first thing they saw was multiple bruises on top of bruises on my right temple. They took pictures of the bruising on us. That's basically how we went into foster care."
Sierra and her brother lived together in several foster homes—some good, some not so good. Through them all, Sierra's brother took his pain out on her. Violence was the way he coped with the pain, and Sierra got the brunt of it.
On her 12th birthday, she came downstairs in her PJs and two strangers were sitting at the kitchen table.
"I was like, who are these people?" Sierra said. "My foster mom told me these people wanted to adopt me and my brother. They spent two weeks with us in Kentucky and then flew us home to North Dakota."
Moving to North Dakota
Living in small-town North Dakota with their new family was a positive change from the life they'd been living. When they drove up to the front yard of their new home, a big sign welcomed them home. They went camping and traveling as a family. They were loved. And they had family dinners, something they'd never experienced before.
"But my brother continued to beat me. I can't tell you how many times he almost killed me," Sierra said. "I tell people this and they think I must hate my brother. But no, I love my brother to death. You can't help how trauma that early on affects you."
When her adoption day came around, Sierra was adopted without her brother. He had been moved back to Kentucky where he was eventually adopted by another family—a family Sierra says is perfect for him.
That's when things changed for Sierra. "I had been this shining child, and nothing was wrong with me. My brother was the one who had therapy multiple times a week. When I got adopted it was like everything in me kind of bubbled up. I let loose when I realized this was for real. This was permanent. My life wasn't going to be chaos anymore."
Sierra did everything she could to push her parents away. "I'd been lied to my entire life, so I didn't believe they were in it for the long haul."
Sierra's parents took her to therapy, but nothing seemed to help. Eventually, they were able to get her to the Ranch, and she was ready to get help.
"I went to the Ranch with the mindset that I wanted to get better because I was tired of living like this," Sierra said. "When I got to the Bismarck Ranch, I stopped lying—well, except for white lies when you tell someone they look good and they really don't. The people in Bismarck changed my life. One of my teachers, Mrs. Pokrzywinski, wrote a note in one of my journals, and I still read it to this day. She gave me lots of inspiration and helped me a lot. She meant a lot to me then and she means a lot to me now."
Sierra's biggest challenges were anxiety, and her relationship with her parents. Both are improving thanks to her time at the Ranch and her faith in God.
"I've grown so much in my faith, and I believe God is all-healing. He took my anxiety away and I haven't had it for weeks. I had a huge breakthrough in my faith while I was at the Ranch. We wanted the movie, "I Can Only Imagine," and that song is my all-time breakthrough song. I know now there is nothing I can't do without God."
"As for my parents, I am trying so hard and I know they are too. I didn't realize until very recently that they aren't going anywhere. I can scream and kick and say anything, and they're still going to be there for me. I'm probably going to be discharging soon and I want to be able to go home and apply everything I've learned here in my daily life. Because if I can do that, then I can do anything right?"
As Sierra begins to believe in herself and her ability to live successfully with her family, she is discovering the joy of helping others.
"Helping gives me joy...doing random things and not expecting anything out of it," Sierra said. "That's what gives me the most happiness and joy that just fills my heart. It's the little things that help me grow as a person and become more insightful. If I hadn't come to the Ranch, I'm not sure where I'd be.
"I like being at the Ranch; it's a second home for me. I consider the staff and teachers as my REAL Ranch family. They helped me believe in myself, and though they may not know it, they helped me grow as a person. And I will never forget how much Pastor Rick and Deaconess Kelly helped me to grow in my faith. Even though times can get tough, God gives us a whole support system to get through it.
"Remember this," Sierra said. "God is here now and forever. You are His child and He will always love you."