Cutler-Orosi equine ranch aims to better lives of at-risk youth

Left to right: Willy Hense, Lori Gilbreath and Mike Alvarez of Mending Fences and Changing Minds pose with horses at the equine ranch located on Davidian Farms in the outskirts of Cutler-Orosi. Hense assists at the ranch as a volunteer and Gilbreath as a horse trainer. (Daniel Leon/Clovis Roundup)

When Mike Alvarez retired from his job as a correctional officer in 2014, he turned his focus to serving at-risk youth in the Cutler-Orosi area.

“I retired after 25 years and decided that I wanted to come back home and give back to the community,” he said.

Today, one of the ways Alvarez mentors troubled youth is through Mending Fences and Changing Minds, an equine ranch program he started through his foundation.

“The name [Mending Fences and Changing Minds] kind of goes with what we’re doing,” said Alvarez, founder of Changing Minds One At a Time Foundation. “‘Mending Fences’ means we come out to the ranch, we work the stalls, we work the corralls, we mend fences, we paint fences. We do basically everything that needs to be done around the ranch. ‘Changing Minds’ means when these kids come out here, we can change their mind, the way they think.”

Located on 10 acres at Davidian Farms in the outskirts of Cutler-Orosi, the ranch serves as a sanctuary for troubled kids and teens from fourth to eighth grade. Every year starting in mid-March, the program takes in a groups of 10-12 students every eight weeks. During the eight-week program, students come out to the ranch two days a week – a total of 16 sessions – to learn how to do ranch work, catch up on homework and spend time with horses.

“Right now, our at-risk youth that we provide services for have one thing and one thing only: to go hang out in the streets, cause hate and discontent out in the community,” said Alvarez. “They don’t have a whole lot of positive things in their lives. We want to change their minds and allow them to see that there’s something else out here other than the streets.”

Most of the students in the program get referred to Alvarez via the Cutler-Orosi Joint Unified School District. Through their data (suspensions, truancies, tardies, grades), the district identifies which students should be referred to take part in the program.

Upon arrival at the ranch, the kids and teens are given a tour of the property, introduced to the horses and taught how to use the different work stations.

Assisting Alvarez with the program are a number of volunteers, including horse trainer Lori Gilbreath and volunteer Willy Hense.

“We have different stations here at the ranch,” said Alvarez. “We’re building an arbor, which is going to be our staging area. The kids come in here and we’ll go over safety rules and what everybody’s job is going to entail. We will also be doing mentoring and homework in there with tutors. The next station will be working on the stalls, which entails cleaning, watering, feeding and tightening up the bolts. The next area will be the hitching post. We’ll bring out a group here to learn how to groom the horses and tie knots. The next area is the round pen where we’ll take the kids out there and teach them how to exercise the horses. So, we will have three to four different stations.”

Around the ranch lie a few pieces of antique farm equipment, which Alvarez would eventually like to incorporate into the program as restoration projects. Once each piece is cleaned up and repaired, a plaque will be placed on it with the names of the team members of the group that worked on it.

After the eight weeks are up, the next cycle of students get their turn on the ranch. Graduates of the program are welcome to come back and serve as mentors.

Two years ago, Alvarez did a pilot program at another ranch with a group of eighth graders to test things out and see how they would respond. Of the dozen students, none of them were on track to “walk,” or graduate, from middle school to high school. After the eight weeks, Alvarez said, every one of those students was able to walk.

“What they attributed to was the ranch,” he said. “They said ‘we were able to go out there, have fun, be ourselves and learn what it’s like to work.’ They said it was like an outlet, like a vacation for them. For those eight weeks, we hit it hard, hit the books really well and with that they were able to graduate.”

Mending Fences and Changing Minds relies on sponsors and donations from the community. To donate, contact Michael Alvarez at 559-786-8148, changingminds0@gmail.com

Clovis Roundup founder’s legacy lives on

Of the three horses at the ranch, two belonged to late Clovis Roundup founder, Ken Melchor.

Summer Lace and Wasco were his beloved horses and he would be proud to know that they are being put to good use at Mending Fences and Changing Minds. He considered them two of the best mountain horses he ever owned.

Today, his legacy lives on through his horses and the impact they have in the community.

Daniel Leon :