BATON ROUGE, La. (BRPROUD) — Viki Ellis is our third finalist in Nexstar’s Remarkable Women contest. As the founder of Heritage Ranch, a residential home for teenage boys, Ellis took her story of personal crisis and turned it into a lifetime of helping other families navigate similar challenges.

Ellis was just a teenager when the idea for Heritage Ranch developed.

“When I was 14, I was actually on a babysitting trip in Tennessee and we stopped at a children’s home there, and God just really stirred something up in me,” said Ellis. “For me, being there and hearing the founder talk about how they were going to start helping families in crisis resonated because I had been that family in crisis the last few years”

As a child victim of sexual abuse, Ellis took what could have been a crippling experience and turned it into a call for action.

“[Heritage Ranch] has been a lifelong journey, to see this place open and serving kids and families,” Ellis told BRProud.

“While we’re a Christian children’s home,” Ellis added, “Our actual heart is really the restoration of families and equipping the entire family unit to be healthy and thrive.”

Heritage Ranch opened in 2015 after a successful capital campaign to raise initial funds. The home sits on more than fifty acres in Zachary while a second building on the property serves as a schoolhouse.

“We can work with boys as young as 10 and they can be here as old as 18. Traditionally, our average is about 12 to 14 because that’s usually the highest point of crisis for boys that need to be here,” Ellis said.

The intake process considers a variety of crises in the home.

“It can be anything from a young man who might be dealing with depression, suicide risk, anxiety to someone who’s behaviorally acting out because of educational deficits in the classroom – or it can be trauma in the home,” Ellis said. “But I always share the one common denominator: we’re a voluntary replacement facility. So [families] have tried everything else and they reach out to us because they want to get support for their family and their child.”

The Zachary location provides an atmosphere that encourages children to reconnect with the nature that surrounds them.

“We wanted to be out in a rural environment where we could create a program that would focus around opportunities for the kids to disconnect from technology and really just focus on counseling and engaging in friendships with other boys and their families,” Ellis said.

Outside of daily schooling and counseling, the teenagers also gain experience with beloved American pastimes.  

“It’s so funny because some boys come here and they’ve never fished before and they’re out there with a cast net and fishing poles and doing all the things that all teenagers should be doing,” Ellis said.

Ellis said she is working toward expanding the programming Heritage Ranch provides. One plan involves partnering with local churches to provide family counseling services. A long-term goal is to expand the number of residential homes.

“I just get really excited about believing that if you can transform the culture of families and especially families within communities, that you’re going to start to see those communities change as well for the better,” Ellis said.

Ellis is also a wife and mother of five.

“My oldest is adopted… I have a junior in high school, an eighth-grader, a sixth-grader and a third-grader,” Ellis said.

“I’m raising my kids here, my family here and everyone that I love and care about is here in this region and so we want to be a part of making it an incredible place to live where families can feel supported and have access to resources,” Ellis concluded.