It’s a home. It’s family. It’s a safe haven during times of family turbulence.
For almost two decades, El Ranchito de los Ninos has taken in groups of siblings, giving them a temporary place to live when their parents otherwise can’t.
Founded in 2000 by Kathy and Mike Mechenbier, El Ranchito was established with the mission of keeping siblings together. Often when sibling groups are placed in foster care, they are split up, said Kathy Mechenbier.
“Sometimes you have families of five or six children, relatives can’t take them all, foster parents can’t either. Sometimes, even just two children is too many for different reasons,” Kathy said. “We wanted to be an alternative to foster care.”
Before El Ranchito was established, Kathy and Mike were involved with nonprofit organizations that supported children, but Mike wanted to do something directly for kids, his wife said.
“He was thinking about something like St. Anthony’s in Albuquerque, the orphanage. He remembered that from when he was young,” Kathy said. “I told him I didn’t think there were orphanages anymore.”
Mike isn’t the only member of the El Ranchito organization who remembered St. Anthony’s. Kathy’s family adopted a boy from the orphanage.
Also, the father of Steve Ulibarri, the organizations director of advancement, lived at the orphanage for a time.
“He was one of seven siblings and they were split up,” Ulibarri said. “No family members could take them all.”
With the clear idea of not splitting up sibling groups, the couple visited other Christian children’s homes and facilities across the state. Kathy said they saw practices they liked and some they didn’t. It was nearly five years of research and planning before the doors opened to the home nestled amongst the fields of Tomé off Edeal Road.
“We decided to establish a children’s home with the goal of eventually having the children leave and return to their families,” Kathy said. “The children can stay as long as necessary but we do not offer any adoption services.”
The Mechenbiers wanted to make El Ranchito de los Ninos a place like their own home, making it similar in feel to how they raised their own children.
“We wanted to focus on being a family. To have both boys and girls, to grow up with their brothers and sisters,” Kathy said. “They would have their siblings and their El Ranchito siblings.”
The children at El Ranchito are there through private placements, as well as referrals through CYFD and Navajo Nation Social Services, said Amy Kindrick, El Ranchito de los Nino’s executive director.
The home serves children in need, at a time of disruption and upheaval in their lives — when they cannot be with their parents for some reason.
To minimize that upheaval and uncertainty, Kindrick said the home and its staff work to help the children maintain existing relationships, so long as it’s healthy for them.
“We are very selective about those connections, but they can still go visit their grandparents, go on sleep overs with friends,” Kindrick said. “We want them to have a normal life like any other kid.”
The house parents at El Ranchito also work hard to create an environment of family for the children.
“It’s the little things, like the person who drives you to soccer practice knows your middle name and when your birthday is,” she said.
While children are very resilient, Ulibarri said, everyone at El Ranchito is aware there has been a disruption of the family organization.
“Through no fault of their own,” he said.
El Ranchito accepts children from 0 to 18 years old, and they all receive age-appropriate therapy while at the home. The home is not a treatment facility, Kindrick said, and it is very selective about the siblings it takes in.
“We do ask for a lot of background information,” she said. “It’s not just a matter of ‘We have empty beds to fill.’ We have to make sure they will fit with the children already here.”
Keeping sibling groups together is the mission of the home, but the staff also works to help the children have their own identity and plans for the future.
“We want to help them follow their dreams,” Kathy said. “Some don’t even dream. We want to give them the opportunity, the understanding that there is something out there.”
Ulibarri said groups or individual members of the community are always welcome to get involved with special projects at the ranch, or on a long-term, ongoing basis.
Since El Ranchito receives no government funding, it relies heavily on donations. Companies can sponsor an event, individuals can sponsor a child monthly, and there are other ways to give once or on a recurring basis.
One way businesses, school, churches and anyone else can be involved is by participating in the El Ranchito annual food and essentials drive through Nov. 25.
For more information about the ranch and being involved with it’s mission, visit elranchitonm.org, call 565-4470 or stop by for a tour.