Halfway through her walk across the back parking lot at the Ramey-Estep High School, principal Ann Brewster found herself surrounded by chattering teenage girls.
Each of the girls cradled a small animal in her arms — here a chicken, here a cat, over there a lop-eared bunny. All of the girls wanted to share their new-found friends with Brewster and a visitor to the rural campus of the Ramey-Estep school.
“The chicken is my favorite,” said Andrea, who comes from Floyd County. Good thing, because that is just what she was holding, a snow-white hen resting quietly in her arms with its eyes patiently closed. “It’s soft and it’s pretty. If it was up to me I wouldn’t eat the chicken,” she said.
The visitor didn’t ask Andrea’s last name because students at the Ramey school and its associated residential treatment program come from troubled backgrounds. All of them have troubles in their lives because of which they have been sent to the school by the state Community Based Services or Juvenile Justice departments. The departments also guard their privacy by prohibiting direct photography of the students.
The girls had met the animals in a petting zoo brought to the school by local volunteer Ray Sammons. The zoo was one of 11 activity stops in the school’s annual harvest festival; other activities include making caramel apples and apple butter, cooking frontier style and hiking a hillside trail.
Brewster called it a celebration of the season and of rural heritage, but in a larger sense the festival is a celebration of possibilities and potential, of new ways of life away from the abuse, crime and gangs so many of the students were accustomed to before Ramey.
Many are sent to Ramey from Louisville, Lexington and other urban centers, and when they arrive, the tree-clad hills around the school might as well be the terrain of an alien planet. “They come here not knowing what a holler is ... a lot of the kids have never hiked in the woods. Some kids have never gone fishing,” Brewster said.
So when adult leaders take them out on the nature trail, hand them giant spatulas to stir apple butter, or show them how to dip wicks into wax to make candles, the lesson they learn is of a whole new life outside the city blocks they came from.
Brewster said one thing she tells every student, over and over, is that while they are at the Ramey school they are as safe as they can ever be — an assurance that itself is life-changing, she believes.
The festival reveals evidence that she is right — a group of teenage boys sits at picnic tables in a shelter, busily transforming a pile of paint stir sticks and scraps of cloth into miniature decorative scarecrows.
Chances are it’s an activity few of them would undertake at home for fear of risking ridicule, but in the grounds of the Ramey school they fold their bits of cloth precisely and meticulously, squeeze glue from a bottle to hold it all together.
When child care worker Steve Thomas suggests one of them name his scarecrow Jethro and rattles off the first verse of the “Beverly Hillbillies” theme, the boys laugh, even though the pop culture reference escapes them. Having harmless fun is safe at Ramey-Estep.
Little gestures are not so little at the school, according to Brewster. Students who have heard all their lives they are worthless need affirmation. “The smallest thing you do for these kids, they appreciate it this much,” she said, stretching her arms wide.
During the festival, which has evolved over the past decade from its original beginning as a simple apple-butter making exercise, the students assemble packages to send to service members overseas. Called Project Appreciation, the activity sends stationery, candy and other treats to the service members while instilling a life lesson at home.
The lesson is one of putting others above oneself, according to Shae, who comes from Lexington. “This place teaches you to care about others rather than yourself,” she said. When they assemble the packages for Project Appreciation, they are reminded of something they have in common with the service members who will open them: “We know it’s got to be hard being away from their families,” Shae said.
MIKE JAMES can be reached at email@example.com or (606) 326-2652.