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Highland Lakes Helpers: Candlelight Ranch addresses pandemic-related stress through Project HEAL

Candlelight Ranch Development Director Tara Gray (left) and Program Coordinator Madison Peterson

Candlelight Ranch Development Director Tara Gray (left) and Program Coordinator Madison Peterson outside Reese’s Treehouse, one of the outdoor facilities at the ranch, 6408 Muleshoe Bend Trail in Spicewood, just outside of Marble Falls. Staff photo by Brigid Cooley

As lockdowns, quarantines, and social distancing pushed people indoors, the need for a safe, outdoor space to connect with nature became more prevalent in the communities served by Candlelight Ranch

In an attempt to offer relief, the Marble Falls-based nonprofit created Project HEAL, a program designed to alleviate underserved families of the stress, fear, and other negative emotions brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“The pandemic showed us that people need a safe space to be outside in,” Program Coordinator Madison Peterson said. “We saw increased isolation in the populations we try to reach, but luckily, we have the benefit of being outdoors. We adjusted to the situation.” 

Located at 6408 Muleshoe Bend Trail in Marble Falls, Candlelight Ranch provides outdoor and educational programming to families and individuals of all abilities but especially those in underserved communities. This includes at-risk youth, people with special needs, low-income families, military families, and anyone who lacks access to programming to address their needs. 

“Outdoor programming can be so expensive and hard to find,” Peterson said. “We want to help by providing those opportunities.” 

The organization has active participation from communities spanning eight Texas counties, including Burnet and Llano counties.

Project HEAL is a direct result of the pandemic, Development Director Tara Gray explained. The program brings military, special-needs, foster, immigrant, and low-income families onto the ranch for a day of relaxation. Services are free for qualifying families and individuals. 

Each participating group gets to explore on-site facilities and activities, including horseback riding, an interactive garden, ropes courses, a gaga ball pit, and three zip lines fashioned so people of all abilities can ride. Ranch team members adjust what activities are offered to families to meet specific needs and concerns. 

“Like all of our programs, it’s customized to meet the group or family where they are at the time they are here,” Peterson said. “‘Will it be beneficial?’ ‘Will it make (participants) feel successful?’ These are all questions we ask when we’re forming programs.” 

During the height of the pandemic, families were allowed onto the 40-acre ranch one at a time. This adjustment helped minimize possible exposure to COVID-19 and allowed staff and volunteers to work on a rotating schedule, Gray explained.

To monitor the effectiveness of the program, participants were asked to take the Generalized Anxiety Disorder Assessment (GAD-7) before and after their ranch adventures. A decrease in anxiety was reported in 100 percent of participants, Peterson said.

Project HEAL served 165 families in 2020. The program, which is now considered an umbrella program that encompasses events such as the organization’s quarterly Family Days and monthly Military Family Days, has reached over 152 families this year. 

The ranch is always looking for volunteers to assist in programming, Gray said. Common duties include helping operate the zip line course or leading a craft during a Family Day at the ranch. Once you start visiting the ranch, even in a volunteer capacity, you won’t want to stop, Gray warned with a smile. 

Gray herself serves as an example of a volunteer who couldn’t leave. She began visiting the ranch in 2006 after she lost her daughter, Reese, to a terminal illness. Gray and her family sought solace at the ranch and began volunteering after witnessing first-hand what the Candlelight community can do to help people in need. Before being hired full time in 2018, Gray raised the funds to build a treehouse facility, now named Reese’s Treehouse after her daughter, where visitors can bunk during overnight stays.

Facilities are once again open to overnight retreats and regular programming is up and running.

“(The ranch) becomes a home base for everyone who visits,” she explained “Once people put their feet on the ground and have their eyes opened, they stay. (The community is) a solid foundation of people who have their heart in it.” 

For more information on how to get involved, visit