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Volume six number Three, Two Thousand Ten | fa l l

Hope at the End of the Rope: Montana


Ranch Helping Kids No One Else Wants
Crow Tribe Bets on Its Future
Tracking Backcountry Bad Guys

Cowboy Cool: Kicking it with Zarzyski and Gustafson

Raising a Pint at Wibaux’s


Beaver Creek Brewery
While adoption of
foreign children in the Hope at the End
U.S. generally goes well,
sometimes it doesn’t.
A ranch in the far
reaches of Montana
of the Rope
By Scott McMillion | Photography by Thomas Lee
cares for those seemingly
unfixable children, LOVE CAN CURE A LOT. BUT IT CAN’T FIX EVERYTHING.
offering understanding Joyce Sterkel learned that lesson the hard way, tending to scores of children and teenagers
born with big problems served to them in the womb. Others were saddled with more afflictions a little
amidst a firm daily routine. later, in the cradle. For some, the insults
and injuries kept coming for years. She
has become a specialist in helping the
poisoned, the neglected, the lost.
Sterkel runs a nonprofit organiza-
tion called Deep Springs Ranch for Kids
in the stunningly beautiful Tobacco
Valley just north of Eureka, Montana.
Joyce Sterkel runs the Deep Springs
Ranch for Kids in Eureka. Her clients are
She and her family and staff tend to
adopted children, mostly from Russia, adoptees from foreign countries, mostly
whose behavior patterns indicate alcohol Russia, that can’t cope with family life
abuse on the part of their biological
mothers and abuse and neglect from the
in this country, usually because of what
orphanages they were born into. they suffered as infants or even earlier.

6 M O N T A N A Q U A R T E R LY 7
In many cases, their birth mothers filtered and cuddled at an early age. “She’s my constant companion,” Sterkel said of
alcohol into their fetal brains, twisting the tiny wires. Neglected or ignored babies can suffer what Lilia. “And she will be for a while.”
In many other cases, the babies languished in orphan- psychologists call Reactive Attachment Disorder, And even if love doesn’t mend everything, it has
ages, sometimes for years, where they seldom if ever which Sterkel called “a nice way of saying anti- a way of making echoes.
felt a human touch inspired by affection, an absence social behavior disorder.” When you’re unloved as Little Lilia doesn’t know her own circumstances,
that can chew forever at the human core. an infant, love and trust don’t come easy later in life. but other kids at the camp know their own histories
Often they are cold, distant and defiant. They can As adults, they can become what Sterkel calls socio- very well. And they know how Sterkel — most of them
be violent or cruel. Sometimes they threaten to kill paths: unhappy people who lack empathy, men and call her Baba, which is Russian for grandma — helped
siblings or parents or pets. By the time their parents women who don’t seem to comprehend, let alone feel, them deal with those histories and face a future.
reach out to Sterkel, they’re at the end of their rope. the pain of others. The stress of raising children like “Even though I have a mother, she’s like my
Working with these kids has washed away illu- that, especially if they suffer common side effects second mother,” said 21-year-old Jenya Davidson, who
sions. Sterkel is pretty blunt about it. like lowered IQ or other psychological disorders, can lived at Ranch for Kids as a teenager then returned to
“You can’t love away a child’s genetic founda- ruin families, rip marriages apart. be an employee. “I’d do anything for her.”
tion, his pre-verbal memories, or his prenatal expo- Sterkel doesn’t want the same tortures to rain “I feel the same way,” added his roommate, a 17-
sure to alcohol,” said Sterkel, standing in the ranch down on little Lilia and that’s why she’s keeping her year-old named Vanya Klusyk. Without Sterkel and
Vanya, 17, spent eight yard, surrounded by pines and overlooking bunk- so close. The baby’s birth mother is a former resident the ranch, he said, his future looked sour.
years of his life in a
Russian orphanage.
houses, a playground and horse corrals. at Ranch for Kids, who had been living in Salt Lake “Prison,” he said. “If I didn’t come here, that’s
“It was horrifying,” And while love can’t fix everything, sometimes it City and using methamphetamine and drinking even probably where I’d be.”
he says. He plans to can help. Sterkel knows this, too. That’s why, at the after she became pregnant. Sterkel talked her out of Vanya still has a Russian accent. He came to
start a landscaping
company with Jenya,
age of 62, she spends most of every day with a 1-year- an abortion and offered to take the baby, which the this country at the age of 14, adopted by a California
whom he works with old girl named Lilia glued to her hip, hoping to fend birth mother had no interest in raising. She’s now the couple after spending eight years in a Russian orphan-
at Sterkel’s ranch. off what often befalls babies when they aren’t held legal guardian. age, where he had to fight for food, attention, every-
thing. Frustrated, confused, unable to speak English,
at his California home he often flew into rages he still
can’t quite explain, upending furniture, bashing holes
in walls, tearing the carpet from the floor.
His adoptive parents sent him to Sterkel after
just a few weeks.
At the ranch, the anger persisted.
“I couldn’t control myself,” he said. “But over
the years, I changed my attitude and went to the
right path and kept on going.”
“I got lucky,” he added.
Vanya and Jenya now share an apartment over
Sterkel’s garage. They both work for the ranch, tending
to the younger children, landscaping, raising animals
and gardens, cooking meals and whatever other chore
beckons. They’re hoping someday to open a landscap-
ing business together. predictability are crucial if they are to cope with their “I’ve made a lot of
But not yet. ailments. poor choices,” says
Paige, a client for nine
For now, Sterkel and the young men agreed, they “Anything that’s out of the ordinary really messes months after being
still need the stability the ranch offers. The sons of the kids up,” explained Bill Sutley, one of Sterkel’s six adopted by a couple
alcoholic mothers, they still need a structured life children (three adopted from Russia) and the ranch in the state of Georgia
from her native
“where somebody can act as your external brain for manager. Something as simple as changing plans country of Russia.
you,” Sterkel said. from a soccer game to a gardening session can cause
The roommates help each other with that. a ruckus.
And that’s not how most American families live.
“Families live spontaneously,” Sutley said.
PIZZA RIOTS In most households, a sudden decision to go out for
For people with fetal alcohol syndrome disor- pizza feels like a celebration. For some of these adopt-
der, an attachment disorder, or both, stability and ees, it can trigger tantrums that seem to last forever.

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“I thought, ‘hey, I’ve got a houseful of kids, why Joyce Sterkel has
custody of 1-year-old
not start a program,’” Sterkel said. “It was an act of Lilia, the biological
faith.” daughter of a former
She and her husband, Harry Sutley, had owned client at Deep Springs,
and carries her every-
land in the Tobacco Valley for years, so that’s where where. Below, teenage
they started Ranch for Kids in 1999. girls work in a vege-
“We have to do what we can where we’re planted,” table garden at the
school, where self-
Sterkel said.
sufficiency is a priority.
Most kids stay for a few months. Some stay for
years.
Seventeen-year-old Sophia, born in Paraguay, is
one of them. She’s looking forward to her 18th birth-
day, when she’ll join the U.S. Army for training as a
bomb specialist. The structured military atmosphere
will be a good fit for her, she hopes.
“I’m nervous, but at the same time I’m really
excited,” she said. “And it’s a little scary to be leaving
the family.”
She meant her family at the ranch, not her adop-
tive one in Pennsylvania. She’s seen them only occa-
sionally in recent years. Going back to live with them
isn’t really an option.
“I love my (adoptive) family but there’s not an
exact connection,” she said. “I never really attached

Sophia, 18, pulls So at Ranch for Kids, routines don’t vary much,
weeds from around UNDERSTANDING THE COST
a rose bush at the
with a strict routine of school, chores and group meet-
ranch. Sophia, like ings, where people evaluate each other’s behavior. While the ranch is a nonprofi t, it’s not cheap.
many Deep Springs Bad behavior means a loss of privileges like televi- Tuition runs about $3,500 a month, about what
kids, will head into
sion or dessert. Good behavior means the retention of you’d pay for a tony boarding school. But even at that
the military after
graduating from high them. There are rules about behavior, hygiene, cloth- price, the ranch has a waiting list for its services.
school. The struc- ing, a lot more. All of it is designed, first of all, to Sterkel, a nurse and midwife, began learning
tured, disciplined make the children feel safe. about Russian orphans in 1992 when she began a
life of the military
is a great option for As Sutley explains it, managing the kids has a two-year stint at a hospital at Nizhny Novgorod, a
kids from the ranch, lot in common with training horses. city that had been closed to all foreigners until the
Sterkel says. “You make it hard to do the wrong thing and collapse of the Soviet Union.
easy to do the right thing,” he said. That can involve “It was very primitive, third world, the way babies
a lot of power struggles, with the primary goal of were born,” she said. While the Russian doctors had
creating both the reality and perception of safety for “great hand skills,” they didn’t have much else in the
the kids. way of tools. Some birthing rooms didn’t even have
“We’re alpha dogs, most of us,” Sterkel said of oxygen or curtains between the beds.
her 15 staffers overseeing about 30 kids at a time. She got interested in placing Russian orphans
“The way the kids see it, if you’re not strong enough in homes in western countries, adopted three of them
to control me, you’re not strong enough to protect herself, and, after she returned to the United States,
me.” began taking in problem children in an informal way.

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to them. So I think occasional visits are better.” institution.
Sterkel held up Sophia as a success story. She’s Sterkel is blunt but honest with the children.
stable, learning to cope with a world with a brain that’s To deal with their afflictions, they need to under-
Jenya, 21, came from
wired a little differently, and staying out of trouble. stand them.
Russia to Honolulu, For most of the kids here, Sterkel defines “I don’t believe in lying to kids,” she said.
and eventually lived on success as “employed and out of trouble.” The “It is because you have brain differences,” she
the streets for several
months before his
younger kids sometimes go back to their adoptive told a group of teenage girls. “It doesn’t mean you’re
adoptive mother found families and some go on to new families. The teen- stupid. It doesn’t mean you’re retarded. It means you
him and sent him to agers, most often, join the Job Corps at 16 or stay at have brain differences.”
Eureka. “These people
the ranch until they complete high school. The camp is not a wilderness experience. The
really do understand
us,” he says. “They “They aren’t going to Harvard,” Sterkel said. kids stay in houses, they eat at tables, they get hot
really are trying to help.” But hopefully, they won’t go to jail or a state showers. But it’s definitely in the sticks, which is a
big adjustment for some of the kids, most of whom
come from urban or suburban environments. But
the rhythms of working outdoors, doing ranch work,
are part of the treatment.
The kids learn to feed livestock and harvest
eggs. They pick up some practical skills, from house
cleaning to carpentry and masonry. Some of them
are learning for the first time what it means to accom-
plish a task. And they learn that having an affliction
does not grant them license.
“In spite of my differences, I still have to learn
to make good decisions,” Sophia said.

DIFFERENT APPROACHES
The Ranch for Kids philosophy has some critics,
people who advocate for intensive medical or psycho-
logical therapy. Without that treatment, a stay at the
ranch — one month for every year of age is a rule
of thumb — is little more than a respite from the
complexities of family and social life, critics say.
Sterkel counters that, by the time the kids arrive
at the ranch, most of them have already undergone
medical treatments, psychological work and medi-
cation, yet they remain troubled.
The vast majority of foreign adoptions turn out
just fine and, in most cases, the adoptive parents
showered their children with love and attention.
But sometimes, families see their love repudiated,
spurned in violent ways.
That’s where the Ranch for Kids comes in. The
kids there were served a raw deal: poisoned in the
womb, ignored in the cradle, beaten or brutalized or
tortured in youth.
“Medicine hasn’t solved the problem,” Sterkel
said. “There’s no cure. It’s permanent, lifelong phys-
ical damage. I’m talking about coping, life skills.”
And that’s what the ranch is about. It can’t fix
everything. But sometimes, it can help.
And that’s something.

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