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Texas ranch provides special place for special needs

Judy Horton hugs her daughter, Kelly, who inspired the founding of Down Home Ranch in Elgin, Texas. The working ranch is home to dozens of special needs adults with Down syndrome and autism. UMNS photos by John Gordon.

By John Gordon*
July 25, 2007 | ELGIN, Texas (UMNS)

Julia Burns wants to spend the rest of her life at the Down Home Ranch.

"I have visions of angels, real angels, in my room. And I feel so comforted, so loved out here," says Burns, 32.

The working ranch is home to a dozen special needs adults with Down syndrome and autism. They live in group homes and work on the ranch feeding horses, cleaning, cooking and raising plants in greenhouses.


"I have visions of angels, real angels, in my room. And I feel so comforted, so loved out here," says resident Julia Burns. 

Burns lived with her parents before moving in 2006 to the 267-acre ranch near Austin in central Texas. 

"I do a lot more responsibilities out here," she says. "I'm free to live my life how I see fit."

That's exactly what Judy and Jerry Horton envisioned when they gave up their jobs as university teachers and risked their savings and retirement funds to open the ranch in 1990. The group homes were added in 2001.

The Hortons' daughter, Kelly, was born in 1984 with Down syndrome. They were concerned about a lack of opportunities for adults with special needs.

Kelly, who is now 22, lives on the ranch.

"We wanted a place where Kelly's needs and the needs of people like her would be addressed first," recalls Judy Horton. "The battery that drove it all was that love for that baby and then that little girl and then that young lady and now this young woman."

During the summer months, the ranch hosts week-long camps for children and adults with mental handicaps.


Liz Smith, who has Asperger syndrome, feeds horses at the ranch.

"I'm just trying to find where I belong, you know, in this life," says resident Liz Smith, 25, who has Asperger syndrome. "I always liked nature and I always liked horses."

Smith says she is learning how to budget the money she earns at the ranch and enjoys taking on more responsibilities.

"My parents let me do a lot of things at home," she says. "But I just wanted to try this and see if I can. I don't have to rely on my parents for everything."

Jerry Horton says the goal is to help special needs adults become more independent.

"We're not here to enable people to be disabled. We want to challenge everybody to be more than they ever thought they could be," he says.

Burns' church, First United Methodist in Elgin, also reaches out to Down Home residents and partners with the ranch on many activities. The church hosts special events for the ranchers and plans to start a sign-language choir.

"We recognize and meet each person where they are - not where we think they ought to be or where we hope they will be," says the Rev. Jim McClain.

One of the biggest projects at the ranch is growing poinsettias for Christmas. Last year, the ranchers grew 12,000 of the holiday flowering plants and worked through Christmas Eve to deliver them to churches and other customers.


The Rev. Jim McClain greets residents of the Down Home Ranch at First United Methodist Church in Elgin. 

The ranch also has a learning center and computer lab.

"We're always looking for ways to create meaningful, dignified jobs" that give opportunity to residents with disabilities, says Jerry Horton, along with income to support the ranch "so we're not completely dependent upon charitable fundraising."

Looking ahead, the Hortons hope to expand the group homes to double the number of permanent residents. They are considering satellite locations for those who want to live more independently.
The ranchers themselves make all the efforts worthwhile, says Judy Horton.

"I can be feeling so low or so tired or whatever, and the minute they come through the door with their energy and their smiles and their hugs, it's heaven," she says. "It's as close to heaven as we'll get on earth."

*Gordon is a freelance producer and writer based in Marshall, Texas.

News media contact: Fran Coode Walsh, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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