Freshman makes ranch his home

Photo by John Dukes

Story by Ellen Orr

Four years ago, 10-year-old Cody Hunter considered himself a misfit. He was living with his mother, sister, and disobedient little brother in Phoenix, Ariz. He was prone to running away from home, and was once picked up by the police. His drug-using father had left their family years before, and his mother was struggling to keep their family in tact.

Cody’s living situation was the epitome of “parched ground,” and although he didn’t know anything different, his mother was thirsty for her children to have a better life. Through her social worker, she connected with Watersprings Ranch, a Christian-based long-term residential home for children. Located in Texarkana, Ark., the Ranch appealed to Cody’s mother because the organization is faith-based and requires no tuition or fees on her part. Cody and his younger brother, Zac, were soon enrolled. Their young minds had no idea the opportunities awaited them.

The new family created at Watersprings Ranch has provided Cody and his brother with an overflowing of happy times. Flooding needy children’s lives with love is the desire of David and Carla Whatley, who founded the organization in 1989, abiding by the scripture Psalm 107:35-36: “He turneth the wilderness into a standing water, and dry ground into watersprings. And there He maketh the hungry to dwell, that they may prepare a city for habitation.”

The ranch is currently home to 34 children of all ages who have been abused, neglected or abandoned. Complete with five group homes, an on-grounds school, and an unending supply of love, Watersprings Ranch rehabilitates children with structure and discipline.

“They’re scored daily on responsibility, chores, and attitude. At the end of the week, if they’ve done everything they have to do, they get privileges,” administrator Erin Allen said.

Each house is decorated with warm colors in order to establish a homey feeling rather than an institutional one.

“We run this house just like a family,” house mom Teena Elrod said.

Husband, Max, agrees.

“We treat them like they’re our kids,” he said. “They are our kids.”

Cody feels like the ranch succeeds in their home-assimilating mission.

“Everybody here is a family,” he said. “It doesn’t matter who you are. You’re cool with everybody.”

When Cody first arrived, his outlook wasn’t so positive.

“I was kind of bad when I got here. No, I was bad,” Cody, now 15, said.

Cody acknowledges that chores and tough love helped him make his turnaround, but he accredits most of his success to God.

“He changed my life,” he said. “He brought me [to the ranch] for more chances, more opportunities.”

After three and a half years of attending the Jones Learning Center, a small, on-grounds school, eighth grade Cody was ready for something bigger. He wanted to go to public school to pursue football, a sport that had always captured his time through NFL games or his online fantasy league. Also ready for an academic challenge and more social opportunities, Cody asked his house parents and the administrators to consider his transfer to a public school.

By this point, Cody’s attitude had completely turned around. His behavior was constantly at “A-Level” and he had proved to be a leader on the ranch, through his positive actions and drastic change in conduct. Although residents who request a transfer to public school attend the Arkansas school district, administrators and house parents alike felt that Texas Middle School, and eventually Texas High, would be a better fit for Cody.

“We were convinced that Cody would excel better academically and socially in the Texas system,” Erin said. By the second semester of his eighth grade year, Cody was attending TMS.

Now a freshman at Texas High, Cody is able to live out what he could before only watch on television or read about on the house’s laptop; Cody is a quarterback in the freshman football program.

When asked who his football idol is, he’s not hesitant with his answer: “Curt Warner. He’s a good, Christian guy, and he’s a leader.”

Cody’s case worker, Eric Hollingsworth, is confident in Cody’s success of emulating his hero. “Among the residents here, Cody is a leader,” he said. “He sets something of a standard, and he’s definitely a success story for the ranch.”

Allen agrees.

“He’s chosen to accept [his past] and not feel sorry for himself or let those things keep him down, but rise above it, move forward, and pursue a positive future,” she said.

As far as post-high school plans go, Cody is determined.

“I’m going to college,” Cody said, matter-of-factly. His dream is the University of Southern California.

“They’ve got a good football team,” he said.

On top of football, Cody is active in Boy Scout Troop 52. In fact, he should receive his Eagle Scout, the highest honor for Scouting, in about two months. He is also planning to be on the track team this spring. Additionally, he’s a certified lifeguard, and is hoping to obtain a life-guarding job next summer.

Although it’s difficult to live away from his mother and siblings [his youngest brother is 3, and he’s never met him], Cody makes the most of the monthly phone conference he and his brother are allowed with them. He admits that he misses them a lot, but he copes by staying focused on the present.

Cody realizes his good fortune, and his appreciation for Watersprings Ranch runs deep.

“I like that everybody is a big family,” he said. “Your past is your past, and everybody can move forward.”