Magazine | February 20, 2017, Issue

Act of Love

An unusual ranch in Texas

Elgin, Texas — Like everyone else, people with Down syndrome need someplace to be. But their options are sharply limited. Down Home Ranch is an unusual and wonderful place to be.

The ranch is near Elgin, Texas, which is about 25 miles from Austin. “Elgin” is pronounced with a hard “g,” by the way — like the marbles in the British Museum, not the watch-making town in Illinois. Elgin is known as the Sausage Capital of Texas. Motto: “Warm hearts and hot guts.”

At the entrance of Down Home Ranch, there is a marquee, which today announces that tomatoes are for sale. The Texas Lone Star dots either side of the entrance. “They’re all over the place,” says Jerry Horton. “We’re shamelessly patriotic — both Texas-patriotic and U.S.-patriotic.”

He and his wife Judy are the founders of Down Home Ranch. They incorporated it in 1989, when their daughter Kelly was five. She was born with Down syndrome. And their question was: What would her life be like, once she became an adult? What would she do, where would she live? Who would her friends be?

At some point, Kelly announced, “When I grow up, I want to move to New York City and eat spicy food.” Her father had no idea where she got this idea. Maybe a movie? He said to her, “If you want to move to New York City and eat spicy food, you chose the right mom and dad, because we will make that happen. I don’t know how, but we’ll make it happen.”

The Hortons have always wanted Kelly to have choices in life, the way other people do. As it happens, Kelly has not moved to New York City. She lives at Down Home Ranch. And there is plenty of spicy food. Her mother describes her as “a real Texas woman.”

She, too, is a real Texas woman. She grew up in Abilene (not to be confused with Eisenhower’s town in Kansas). Judy Horton is as serene and lovely a woman as you’ll ever meet. But she has dealt with some blows in life. When she was eight, her father killed himself.

Jerry Horton is not a native Texan: He grew up in San Jose, Calif. Today, San Jose is the capital of Silicon Valley, but then it was the capital of the Valley of Heart’s Delight. Orchards flourished. And so did Jerry. But he had a challenge.

When he was four and a half, he contracted polio. His right leg was useless. He was put in quarantine. Through a window, he looked at his parents. He vividly remembers when a nurse yanked down the curtain. It was cruel.

Jerry’s father had a friend in the Shriners. Thanks to this contact, Jerry was admitted to the Shriners Hospital for Crippled Children, which was in San Francisco. After much travail, he could walk again.

Fast way forward. Jerry did graduate work at the University of Colorado–Boulder, and so did Judy. They met and married. She had three daughters from a previous marriage. She and Jerry raised them together. In 1977, the family moved to Austin.

Kelly came along in 1984, as you’ve heard. “She was a delightful baby and child,” says Judy, “and we were all batty about her. But she turned our lives upside down.” Judy embarked on intense research. She read everything she could about Down syndrome. Also, she and Jerry went hither and yon, looking at facilities for the disabled. They saw the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Best, from the Hortons’ point of view, were the village communities: places where disabled people lived and worked together, alongside others (the “abled,” so to speak). Usually, these places were inspired by families with a personal stake in them.

The Hortons had a personal stake: Kelly. They decided they would create Down Home Ranch. The name is a play on words, of course: The ranch was intended to benefit people with Down syndrome, primarily.

When they hit on their idea, or mission, Jerry was about 50, and Judy a few years younger. He was working at the University of Texas; she was working at the state teachers’ association. And they ditched it all to start the ranch. “We sank the ships and burned the bridges,” Judy likes to say. “There was no going back.”

They didn’t know much about ranching, or farming, or raising money. An acquaintance of theirs, hearing about the project, was at a loss for words. Jerry said, “We’re crazy as loons.” The acquaintance replied, “You said it, I didn’t.”

Jerry went out looking for land, finding the property near Elgin. It was 215 acres. (Later, the ranch expanded to 410.) He and Judy learned how to raise money. “All they can do is tell you no,” says Jerry. “Or hell no.”

Friends of theirs were members at St. David’s Episcopal, one of the more prosperous churches in Austin. “They gave us their directory,” Jerry remembers, “and we did something unconscionable: We put every name and address we could into our little Macintosh and started writing appeal letters.”

One lady, a widow, sent $25. She did it every month. Even when she moved to a retirement home, she sent $25 a month. “It was the widow’s mite,” says Jerry. “And that was how we got started: a nickel here, a dime there.”

The Hortons moved to the property in September 1991. They lived in a little mobile home under a canopy of Spanish oaks. The land was raw and undeveloped — not exactly a valley of heart’s delight. It was a land of cactus, mesquite, and fire ants. But, step by step, the couple built their ranch.

Someone donated a greenhouse — actually, five of them. And other buildings rose. Barns, lodges, houses. The houses are named after Biblical figures: Sarah, Isaiah, Martha, Barnabas, and so on. There are horses, cattle, and chickens. Plus, an old donkey named Blossom. She dates from the very beginning of the ranch.

Most important, there are people. Down Home Ranch has 39 residents, or ranchers, as they are called. About half of them have Down syndrome; the other half have autism, brain injury, or some other disability. There are 30 full-time staff, and 25 part-time. Also, there are many, many volunteers.

You have to be at least 18 years old to live here. There is no upper limit. The oldest rancher is 66. I know this because she tells me so. “Hi, I’m Terry,” she says. “I’m the oldest rancher. I’m 66.”

This is a working ranch, and the ranchers indeed work. They’re paid, too: minimum wage or higher. The ranch sells beef, eggs, tomatoes, and other food. It also sells flowers: poinsettias for Christmas, for example, and lilies for Easter. There are gift items too, such as jewelry and decorative pillows. Hands are kept busy; lives are made useful.

In addition to work, the ranchers have any number of recreational activities: theater, swimming, movies, you name it. They go to the opera in Austin. They celebrate one another’s birthdays, enthusiastically. Some have a boyfriend or girlfriend. They live life.

They live “not only a good life but a great life!” says Down Home literature. “What does that mean?” I ask the Hortons. Judy answers, “Well, they have standards of living and opportunities that approach what their non-handicapped siblings have. They do things like go on vacation.”

In fact, the place is buzzing today, because they leave on a cruise tomorrow — all of them. They will drive to Galveston and then have a Caribbean cruise. This is paid for by a big summer fundraiser — Swim Fest, to be specific.

Jerry explains to me how the ranch at large is funded: About 60 percent comes from fees for residential services. Some of that is government money, some of it is private. (Some families can pay, and some families can’t.) About 20 percent comes from business enterprises (the sale of food, etc.). Then, 20 percent comes from donations.

The Hortons, now in their seventies, have stepped away from the day-to-day operation of the ranch. But they are hard at work, building an endowment. Judy marvels at what has happened over these last three decades — all the twists and turns. “I knew an old cowboy priest, who was always going on about Divine Providence. I have concluded that he was right.”

Before I leave, Jerry wants me to know something: “We’re not saints. We are not comfortable with praise.” (I always hear this, by the way, when I interview people like the Hortons. I could set my watch to it.) “We set ourselves to being good parents, and Down Home Ranch is one of the consequences of that.”

The Hortons may not be saints, but the ranch is a saintly act. An act of imagination, energy, and love. It has blessed Kelly, yes, but all these others as well.

Jerry remembers the early days. “We’d be out here, living in the mobile home. We’d have worked all week. It would be Sunday afternoon, and we would be bone-tired. Judy would be cooking supper; I would be writing yet another appeal letter or something. And here comes this car, driving real slow.”

He continues, “The last thing you want to be is convivial. You just want to be done with your week. But you know that in the backseat of that car is going to be some young man or young woman, probably with Down syndrome. The family is out there. They’ve crossed the country looking for some hope for the future. And you learn very early on that they may be rich or they may be poor or whatever — but you need to be there for them.”

It would be weird to say that people with Down syndrome are lucky. That anyone with such a disability is. But you could do worse — a lot worse — than to have discovered Jerry and Judy Horton and this ranch.

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