Redefining Independence at Special K Ranch

July 2023

by rebecca stewart | photos by seth kroft

Nestled in the beauty of the in-between of Park City and Columbus, tucked off the main road, is a unique, little working ranch that began its operation in 1987 with a vision of being able to tell parents of adult children with special needs that their child would have a home for the rest of their life. On Special K Ranch’s acreage, you’ll find eight homes separate from the “business” side of the ranch where 65,000 square feet of greenhouses now exist, livestock are raised, gardens and melon patches are tended, the native seed and seedling program flourishes, and service contracts are upheld. Beyond that, though, are the people who live in those homes and work this ranch. Hard-working individuals who have found a way of life that constantly challenges them to learn and grow while finding space within a bonus family. Because as Steve Aadland says, “We’re not a business, we’re not an institution, we’re family. And everyone knows that love is what drives a family.”  

Special K Ranch’s mission is to nurture the human and spiritual potential of adults with developmental disabilities through respectful relationships, living and working in an interdependent community, raising their self-esteem, and making them valued citizens.  

  As I toured the Ranch with its Development Director and Marketing & Communications person, Steve Aadland and Kay Hotchkiss, at the height of the Ranch’s busy greenhouse season, I was struck by the calm serenity as we began our walk and talk up the lane towards the homes. Each home houses four ranchers/residents and a set of house parents/home advisors that functions as its own family unit. The Craig House, a transitional home for aging residents, houses up to eight residents and its own set of house parents. Currently, there are 35 ranchers spread across the eight homes.   

Phase II (including building a much-needed new Recreation Center) is underway at the ranch, with one of five new houses already built. Steve notes that growth at Special K is done carefully and methodically, “We grow until it makes sense,” as it takes a fine balance in creating the families that ultimately reside in each home (which can be adjusted, if needed). Not to mention the logistics of staffing, as each home includes a married couple who act as the house parents. As I marveled over the task of finding said people to fill those roles, Steve and Kay noted that for the house parents, it is a ministry, a calling—a desire to help people with love leading the charge.   

A typical day for the house parents involves getting everyone out the door for the day, many times, the house dads have a vocational advisor job while the house mom might have appointments to run and paperwork to take care of; “Both entities of the couple stay really busy in their roles,” Steve explains.   

Vocational Opportunities at the Ranch  

There is always a variety of things happening at the Ranch, so the ranchers are split into crews, rotating every two weeks, so they’re not always doing the same thing and can also work where they thrive.  

  • Greenhouses- From seeds and plugs at the tail end of winter to stunning beauties sold in the spring to various vendors (primarily Ace Hardware), with deliveries taking them as far east as Miles City and as far west as the Butte/Anaconda area.  
  • Native seed & seedling program- They raise indigenous plants for land restoration projects. This program also includes seed collection, cleaning, sorting, and germination. 
  • Livestock- They tend to sheep and cattle year-round (and this seemed to be a favorite feature for many of the ranchers I chatted with). 
  • Produce- A garden, melon patch, and “Tomato World” are planted and tended to with the fruits of their labor heading off to Farmers’ Markets and their own tables (Albertsons is the main carrier of their tomatoes).  

“This is a semi-hydroponic system, which allows for a huge amount of growth for a small amount of soil.” -Steve Aadland] 

In the Champions Building (named for Montana Silversmith’s Champions for a Cause, as they helped build the building, you’ll find that every building’s name comes with special meaning), there are all kinds of things happening, with service contracts being a big part of it. This building is excellent year-round, Steve says, because it’s got radiant heat in the floor, so even when it’s below zero, it’s still nice in the building.   

  • Service Contracts- SKR works with Montana Silversmiths in packaging, Rite Bobbin, and Stillwater Mine, to name a few.  
  • Rescued & Reborn- This is a “crafty, creative program” where recycled materials are used to create all kinds of things, including cornhole boards.

At Special K, the ranchers make a wage and pay a modest tuition to live there, about a fifth of the industry standard, Steve shares. “We want to make this place affordable for anybody; we keep that price a fraction of what most places cost because we want access; we want people to be here regardless of their financial background.” An endowment is in place for the long term, as these are lifelong homes, and it will ensure that everyone is taken care of in the long run. While the residents’ tuition certainly helps keep the wheels turning, fundraising is the key to longevity at Special K Ranch (and some of the vocational programs “turn a little bit of green,” Steve laughs, though they are more about the experience gained than the profit.).   

On the day of our interview, one of the crews working in the Champions Building (the central area for Special K’s vocational program) was working on a new-to-them project for Stillwater Mine. Marvin Schieldt, SKR Program Director, explained, "It’s a good challenge for them to do something new. This is trying to force them to use their brains and hands together in ways they sometimes don’t.” The added bonus is that they can work at their own pace; “We just have to do it right.” Meanwhile, resident Ben waited patiently for our conversation to hit a lull as he waited for Marvin to help him with a machine. Following our introduction, I asked what he loved to do most at the ranch, and though he is a wearer of many hats, working with the livestock is what he loves best. Ben also enjoys hauling plants and planting and packaging jewelry. When Steve asked if he likes that there are a lot of different things going on, he shared, “You could say that. I like to stay busy no matter what I’m doing. Not only does it help the time go fast, but it helps me get paid, too. But yeah, those lambs and calves are so cute, too.”  

Marvin echoes the earlier sentiment that this job is a calling, especially considering the longevity of most of the staff. He adds, “Honestly, it’s therapeutic to be with these guys. We try to challenge them and give them meaningful work where they can find success. Be proud of their accomplishments.” Sue White, who is, by all accounts, a “greenhouse guru,” adds, "We’ve got the greatest workforce. We probably have the best place in the world to work and the best people to work with; it just flows.” For the staff, it’s all about finding ways to keep the residents learning. Marvin explains, “A little bit of productivity, a little bit of pride in the work they’re doing, and ultimately, contentment and satisfaction.”  

  • 34 Special K Lane | Columbus, MT 
  • 2023 Fundraising Dinner | August 18 @ Billings Hotel & Convention Center 

Originally printed in the July 2023 issue of Simply Local Magazine

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