Candlelight Ranch, an outdoor education facility in Smithwick, created a six-week program, Outdoor Explorers, for special-needs students. Candlelight Ranch partnered with Round Rock Independent School District to offer the program to its students at Brushy Creek Regional Park. Courtesy photo
For two decades, Candlelight Ranch has been an outdoors respite for youths with special needs, families, and military service members. The secluded Smithwick facility on Lake Travis is a place to explore, reconnect, and rejuvenate.
“As much as we’d love for them to come out here, we realize not every school or group can,” said Madison Hill, Candlelight’s program coordinator. “So we’re going to them.”
In September, Candlelight Ranch partnered with the Round Rock and Lago Vista school districts on a pilot program, Outdoor Explorers. The six-week, outdoors education program is for special-needs students and tailored to each district.
Once a week at Round Rock ISD’s Brushy Creek Regional Park, students explore the outdoors and experience new things.
“This is a population of students, for different reasons, that really doesn’t get the opportunity to be outside,” Hill said. “We have to go over different topics each time, mainly mammals of Central Texas, or similar things, but it’s mainly about getting them outdoors.”
Candlelight Ranch offers hands-on, nature-based programs and activities at its facility, including zip lines and a ropes course. During the ranch’s quarterly Military Family Days, veterans and active duty military members and their families enjoy a free weekend of fun and relaxation.
The ranch has been looking for ways to take its mission into the community. The hope with Outdoor Explorers, Hill said, is that students get excited about being outside and then tell their parents about it, encouraging future family outings.
“The outdoors provides anyone, not just special-needs kids, a positive, healthy experience,” Hill added. “Also, it’s such an emotional calming thing. I think kids respond well to it. The big thing is just getting them outside.”
Hill has watched students in the six-week program gain confidence and develop.
“Working with the same child over and over, you get to see them progress,” she said. “And that’s just so amazing.”
Hill said the program will begin again after the first of the year. She hopes to eventually take it into Marble Falls and Burnet schools.
Candlelight Ranch also partnered with the Catalyst Collective to offer after-school mentoring and nature-based fun at Round Rock ISD’s Hopewell Middle School and McNeil High School.
“We’re always looking for ways to help, especially with schools and area nonprofits,” Hill said.
Last year, Candlelight Ranch installed a high ropes course and offers team-building opportunities for nonprofits, businesses, and campers and their families.
“There’s a lot of things going on out here,” Hill said. “And we’d love to help people and the community in anyway we can. We’ll even come to you if there’s something we can offer.”