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Building a Family

When Ken Oates volunteered to fix a neighbor’s tractor one Saturday afternoon, he had no idea it would change his life forever.

“I saw a stampede of people running down the drive toward me,” recalled Ken, a Host Home Mentor from Snowflake, Arizona. “They hung out with me while I worked on the tractor, and I got to know them.” He learned that these individuals were part of Dream Catchers, an equestrian program for adults with special needs.

Ken got the tractor running, but he returned the next week and the weeks after that to help with Dream Catchers. The program presented two irresistible draws: Ken’s love of horses and the opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives. He volunteered for more than a year. Eventually, he was approved as a respite provider for the individuals who lived at his neighbor’s ranch, Robbie and Thomas. When the neighbor fell ill in 2010, those two individuals had to find a new permanent home. “We want to move in with Kenny,” announced one of them.

“I hesitated for about three seconds,” remembered Ken. “And then I said, ‘Let’s go get your stuff.’”

More Than Just a Home

The last decade has been a time of family-building in Ken’s three-bedroom home. He has taught Thomas and Robbie how to cook, clean, and keep track of their bills. They write their own checks. They follow their own recipes. They do their own laundry. Every year, the three men assess what skills they want to work on. Grilling is now at the top of the list.

“I treat them as adults and individuals like anyone else would want to be treated,” explained Ken. “I forget they have disabilities. They’ve become independent with so many things.”

And they’ve had fun doing it. On any given weekend, you may find the three camping, fishing, or riding quads around Ken’s property. They volunteer at community events, and they are regulars at the bowling alley. Ken expanded a bowling league for people with special needs from eight individuals to 40 in just a few years. Robbie and Thomas also compete in a men’s league and, like countless other families, the three drive hours to take part in competitive tournaments.

Meaningful Bonds

Cyndi Irving, Program Services Coordinator for Arizona MENTOR and Ken’s nominator, noted the behavioral changes she has witnessed in both individuals over the last decade. Physical and verbal aggression are nearly gone.

“Ken provides a home environment that is safe and fun, where these men can form meaningful bonds and gain independence,” Cyndi said. “Ken believes open communication is paramount to any family’s success,” she added. “They talk to Ken about anything and everything.”

Both men remain very close to their biological families as well, and Ken does everything he can to maintain those relationships. The three travel together for holidays, unexpected life events, and birthdays.

“It’s evolved into a big extended family,” explained Ken. “My mother spoils them rotten. Thomas even called me his second dad for a while—before he found out how old I am.”

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