Helping to Heal
When a family unit gets disrupted, Cookson Hills is ready to serve children struggling with the challenges of growing up and provide support to fix the brokenness this world sometimes causes.
Cookson Hills began with two families, a shared vision, and 400 acres nestled in the foothills of northeastern Oklahoma. Today, the work started by missionaries Howard and Joyce Dillion and Arnold and Eva Kernan continues — partnering with families in crisis to give kids love, education and healing in a scenic, faith-centered setting. Each member of the Cookson Hills community exhausts every opportunity to help kids write a better story — whether that takes a couple of years or just through childhood.
The vision of Cookson Hills is to raise up “healthy individuals empowered to positively impact future generations,” executive director Heath Hostetler explains.
“In a perfect world, this would happen 100 percent of the time within a child’s biological family. We believe the family unit is the best place, God’s preferred place, for kids to be raised,” he says. “But when a family unit gets disrupted, we at Cookson Hills are here, ready to serve those struggling with the unique challenges of growing up in today’s world.”
Families turn to, or are recommended to, Cookson Hills for various reasons — from safety and stability issues in the home to low income or impoverished circumstances. Abuse and neglect, school truancy, homelessness or poor peer relationships are just some of the challenges children bring with them. Care is provided for all who qualify, thanks to the generosity of individuals and organizations that believe in the mission — making it possible for less than 1 percent of annual contributions to come from families with children in care.
One parent reports that she found herself without the resources to fix the brokenness this world causes.
“We visited the campus and my heart was torn,” she recalls. “I wanted to help him, but how could I leave my son with strangers? How could others help him more than his own mother?
“I almost backed out, but my sister wisely said, ‘Look at the men in our family; they have needed help and no one was brave enough to take a leap. You need to do this for him, not for you. If you don’t, we’ll lose him forever. Do this because you love him. No one will think any less of you as a mother.’ I knew what I needed to do.”
Family takes center stage in the Cookson Hills program as each student is welcomed into the home and lives of married Christian houseparents. In tandem, they teach responsibility and life skills, support educational and extracurricular goals, and lead members of their family in faith-based activities.
“Imagine that you have been challenged to put together a million-piece jigsaw puzzle,” houseparent Stephanie Fricke proposes. “You have a few years to complete it, and help from all of the people you work with. Sounds easy enough, right? There’s one more catch — the picture side of the puzzle is facing down, some pieces are missing, and you can’t see it.
“This is what it is like walking through life with our kids here at Cookson Hills,” she says. “They come to you, and you know little bits and pieces from their life puzzle. You might even be lucky enough to have a corner piece.
“In the time our children are with us, we hope to at least begin to piece the puzzle together. As a houseparent, it is my job to cheer our kids on and pray for them through the sifting of their puzzle pieces. Some days and weeks, our teamwork helps us accomplish a lot. Other times we wade through looking for even just one edge to hold on to. But we build deep relationships with our children, and our hope is that one day we will get enough of the puzzle together that we can start to see God’s big picture plans for our children’s lives.”
The Cookson Hills campus offers a private, 1st-12th grade school experience with a trauma-informed care model. Teachers provide solid routines, loving care, acceptance, respect and genuine confidence in the success of all students, notes Melissa Jackson, director of educational services.
“Research shows that trauma can negatively impact a child’s ability to learn, create positive relationships, and respectfully behave in a classroom setting,” Jackson says. “In order to get students back on track academically, they need a school to approach them differently. That’s where we come in,” Jackson says.
Credit recovery, earning college credit, and exploring vocational training through local tech sites gives youth expanded opportunities to catch up, fill-in and try out pathways that speak to their educational goals.
In addition to academics, Cookson Hills offers a variety of extracurricular activities, including boys’ cross-country and basketball, girls’ volleyball, choir, percussion, drumline and 4-Him, which explores various topics from farm living to drama.
Weekly therapy sessions with certified therapists give kids a safe place to process past experiences, work toward new understanding, and prevent behavioral relapse. Trust is paramount to the process, and often houseparents, social workers and therapists collaborate to best meet the needs of the student.
Before Jessica (Class of 2021) came to Cookson Hills, her mom forced her to go to therapy. She hated having to constantly relive everything that had gone wrong in her life. She was understandably scared of therapy when she entered the program.
“Here, I’ve realized that my therapist, Levi, really just wants me to be able to get things off my chest. Therapy makes me feel heard and that brings me peace,” she says.
While there is no faith requirement at Cookson Hills, children are surrounded by Christian influences — attending church with their house family, taking Bible classes in school, and participating in devotionals at home.
“A lot of times, being the Bible teacher means you have to push past the eye rolls and arguments; you have to remember where the students are coming from and respect it. You get a lot of dozing, irritated students,” shares middle and high school Bible teacher Josh Curry. “It can be pretty defeating if you let it. I’ve seen students challenge one another, heard some amazing testimonies of faith, enjoyed a lot of laughter, and wept through a lot of pain. In here, we don’t just talk about the Bible — we wrestle with it.”
For current student Jaci (Class of 2022), being at Cookson Hills is just the beginning of writing a better story for herself and her future.
“I couldn’t do it without everyone on my team. ‘Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you; He will never leave you nor forsake you’ (Deuteronomy 31:6). This is the verse that pushes me through every day,” says Jaci. “God is the author of my life. It’s hard work but will be worth it in the end.”
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November is also the month for giving thanks, and we’ve got that covered as well. Whether you’re a Thanksgiving newbie or pro, this issue has all the recipes, tips, and techniques to make your holiday season easier, more delicious, and as sanity-saving as possible.
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