She reached her hand out and waited patiently. Slowly, Chosen, a brown horse, trotted toward her one hoof in front of the other. The brown gentle giant carefully placed her nose in the girl's hand and bowed her head as if to say "Welcome to Cargo Ranch."
According to executive director and co-founder, Carrie Carter, Cargo Ranch is a safe place for youth to bond with adults, horses and each other.
"Cargo Ranch is a mentorship program for kids that have obstacles and struggles in their lives that make life a little more difficult to live. They come out here and spend an hour an a half with a mentor and they build healthy relationships with adults," Carrie said. "We just spend time loving on them and just trying to make a difference in their lives."
Carrie explained for 10 years Cargo has been a fun place for students to experience the joy of being outdoors.
"We have instructors who come out here on Tuesday nights and spend the hour and half with their kids and they play games. They can go fishing, go to the catfish pond, they can go hiking and do arts and crafts projects," she said. "Whatever you can do outside they have those kind of activities."
The Ranch is open for eight weeks in Fall and Spring and four weeks in Summer and each program has room for 40 students ages 7 to 17 years old.
In 2001, Carter and her husband, Robert, moved to Shawnee and bought their land. She said she knew they needed to do something with it but the idea hadn't come to them yet.
However, one day in 2008, while listening to the radio on his way to work, Robert heard another horse ranch owner discussing how her horses have helped people.
"My husband called me that day and he said 'Carrie this is what we're suppose to do' and I said 'Well honey we don't know anything about horses but alright that's what we'll do...,'" Carter said.
Everything fell into place for the Ranch after Carrie and Robert enlisted the help of their friends Jeff and Debbie Goss, who already had four horses.
"They had the horse aspect down and we had the business aspect down and we put the two of those things together and 10 years later here we are," Carrie said.
Cargo Ranch has 14 horses that have come from everywhere including donations and rescues.
According to Debbie, the horses are just as important as the adults who mentor the children.
"The horses also have stories. Some of them have come from traumatic situations like tornados...Also their personality mirrors a lot of human emotions...So a lot of times we have the ability to just talk about our horses' stories and then our kids' stories come out of that as well...," Debbie said.
The co-founder said Cargo's horsemanship teaches students how to be kind, thoughtful, trustworthy, careful and firm. It also helps students open up.
"A lot of times a kid will talk to an animal before they'll talk to a person because you know you'll have no judgement there. So it's been very effective...," Debbie said.
Carrie explained students who go through the Ranch's program often come back as mentors for younger children.
"That's our goal to see those kids that have been loved on turn around and give that back," Carrie said.
Cargo's program is free of charge and everyone who is a part of the ranch, including staff, mentors and Carrie herself don't get paid.
"Everybody is just out here donating their time and the kids just hear about us through random ways," Carrie said.
At 18-years-old, students can become mentors and at 14 they can be junior volunteers. This was the case for junior volunteer and recent high school graduate, Claire James. She has known both couples her whole life and worked at the Ranch for the last five years.
"I've managed to make a lot of friends which I'm not usually good at but just working together...you build really close relationships and bonds with people you might not have otherwise met," James said.
Her time at Cargo has given James a passion for helping others.
"(Cargo) made me realize how much I do truly want to help people in my life. Beforehand I always kind of just thought about myself and then I came out here and realized how much more to the world there is than just me and that has pushed me to follow a career where I can help other people," James said.
For Carrie, the best aspect of owning Cargo is making bonds with the children, volunteers and families involved.
"I love people. I love building relationships with these people and my volunteers are amazing," Carrie said. "The kids and the families have so much to give and have so much love. I just love being around them and being able to help them and encourage them...,"
Carrie said with so many different volunteers and staff members communication can be a challenge but overall things at Cargo run smoothly.
The Ranch is funded by private donors, grants and fundraisers. For the last four years, the Ranch has hosted the Cargo Classic 5K and 1 Mile Fun Run, which will be May 4 at Heritage Church at 8 a.m. The Classic will raise money for the caretaker house and a new parking lot for volunteers.
Carrie said she hopes the Ranch has longevity with integrity and that citizens of Shawnee will be at peace after a visit to the Cargo Ranch.
"We hope and we pray that this is a place where people can come and find rest and be able to leave their baggage behind and find that hope and that rest that we all have in Christ," Carrie said.
For more information on the Cargo Classic 5K and Cargo Ranch visit cargoranch.org.