Diamond in the rough

The dirt is empty and dry. Remnants of last season’s harvest — tools, old seed packets and empty pots — line the edges of the greenhouse. While barren now, in the coming weeks Coordinator Dean Waddell and the Greybull Life Skills class will transform the desolate planting area into a lush vegetable and flower garden.

The ranch itself was started roughly a decade ago by Cathy Kunkel. According to Waddell, he and Kunkel modeled the Buff Ranch after Columbus, Montana’s Special K Ranch — a working ranch for adults with developmental disabilities.

“We went and asked them to take us and show us around,” he says, “and that’s how we got the idea for greenhouses.”

While the Special K Ranch has roughly 230 acres and 22 greenhouses at its disposal, the Buff Ranch makes do with substantially less; two greenhouses and several planting boxes are situated on the 27-acre plot that was gifted to the district roughly 25 years ago.

In the ten years since its establishment, the Buff Ranch has become an integral part of the Life Skills curriculum; Waddell says working on the ranch fulfills a student’s IEP requirement for job skills and job training, something that would be hard to do without it.

“We’re doing it all in one sweep at the Buff Ranch,” he says. “If we didn’t have that, we’d have to have a job coach for each kid and have to find all of them jobs in the community.”

With support from a state grant, the district pays students an hourly wage for their work on the ranch. Although they only work five hours a week during the spring, many students continue their work through mid-summer.

“Through our ESY (Extended School Year) program, kids come in here and get breakfast, do their chores and, after they’re done, get lunch and are sent home,” Waddell says. “They get four hours of work every day.”

Because the ranch is tied to the Life Skills program, students outside of it aren’t allowed to participate. While they have never struggled because of it, Waddell says some years have been hard to fully utilize and work the ranch.

“We’ve had two aides out there over a ten-year period,” he says, “and seven have graduated with the program. The work we could do was limited because of that; what we can do out there depends on how many students [are in the program.]”

Despite their small numbers, however, the program manages to do good work.

“When we first started and we went to the fair, we [only] won four ribbons. Now we’re close to 100,” Waddell says, adding that last year, the Buff Ranch brought back 88 ribbons from the Big Horn County Fair — a record for them. This year they want to break it.

In addition to providing job skills and training, the Ranch has become a key part of observing growth and development among students. Waddell says the hands-on approach serves as a good complement to the material covered in the classroom.

“You get to see the students outside of the classroom [where you can] find out how well they follow one-step or two-step instructions,” he says. “Taking instructions and carrying it through to the end is something they really need to work on.”

Although the program has proven effective and consequential for Life Skills students, Waddell remains guarded about its future. While he says the program “has never been denied anything,” the state of education funding in Wyoming has him mildly unsettled.

“One of the scary issues we have every year is whether our funding will be there. It’s simply a concern,” he says, adding that the district has not indicated they intend to target the program’s funding if cuts are required. “It’s [just] a worry. They haven’t told us anything or told us they would cut back, but it’s always at the back of your mind.”

Should funding for the program evaporate, Waddell says the school would need to find a new way to fulfill the conditions of Life Skills IEPs.

“If the ranch were to go under, the kids, through their IEPs, still need job coaches and training,” he says.