By ERIN SNELGROVE
YAKIMA, Wash. (AP) -- For several years, Shelly Peterson has witnessed remarkable changes in the children who've visited her West Valley ranch.
Depressed teens begin to smile. Children with Attention Deficit Disorder or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder are able to focus, and still others find an escape from the stress and peer pressure that plague their home lives.
Seeing this joy is why Peterson started Bachelor Creek Ranch in 2008. Through the nonprofit, faith-based organization, children's lives become enriched by caring for and bonding with horses, Peterson said. The free program is open to 8- to 18-year-olds. The cost of running the ranch exceeds $6,000 a year, which includes insurance, feed and shoeing expenses.
"We just knew this place wasn't just for us," said Peterson, 53, who moved to the 4 1/2-acre ranch six years ago with her husband and daughter. "We had to share it."
Peterson uses four of her five horses in the program. She established Bachelor Creek Ranch after hosting retreats for parishioners of Stone Church, which she has attended for nearly 10 years. She later helped organize a fundraiser with her daughter Amy, now 13, who exchanged riding lessons for donations for the homeless.
Inspired by these activities, Peterson enrolled in a clinic two years ago at Crystal Peaks Youth Ranch in Bend, Ore., where she learned the ins and outs of running a program for disadvantaged youths. She then formed a board of directors, solicited donations and wrote her program's bylaws.
During her first year in business, Peterson served 15 participants, who visited her 150 times. Last year, she had 500 appointments with more than 30 children. The number of appointments varies, although Peterson aims to see each child at least twice a month.
About 40 percent of her clientele are people she knows through church or her daughter, Peterson said.
"You get around these big animals and there's something almost magical about them," said Peterson, who also has a grown son. "You want to pet them and touch them, but they demand respect because of their size."
For 16-year-old Anneliese Immel of Yakima, the ranch has been her escape. There, she's not thinking about school or her personal problems. Instead, she can just be.
"The horses, they don't see what people see," said Immel, who admits to struggling with depression. "They are not going to judge you. They will accept you as you are."
At the ranch, Immel mucks stalls, rides horses and performs other chores asked of her. But what she receives in return is much more valuable, she said.
"For me, it's a place where I feel closer to God," Immel said. "If you go there for physical healing, and if you're open to it, you get spiritual healing as well."
Kathy Cluck, too, counts herself blessed to have found the ranch. Her husband, Buddy, is disabled from Lyme disease, a tick-born affliction that causes fatigue, muscle pain and joint inflammation. Cluck brings their daughters, 13-year-old Rebecca and 10-year-old Kaitlin, to Peterson's place to have fun.
"They're learning so much they don't even realize they're learning," said Cluck, an East Valley resident. "The girls are doing something fun, and they forget about what's going on (at home) for a period of time."
While her girls are engaged, Cluck uses the opportunity to rest and unwind.
"I get a chance to go and just do nothing," she said. "There are no requirements on me. I can't work on cleaning the house or do paperwork for Social Security Disability... It forces me to just stop."
Cluck says Peterson has an amazing knack of reading people and giving them what they need most -- be it a prayer, a smile or encouraging words.
"This is a tremendous opportunity," Cluck said. "If we had to pay to go to that, we couldn't do it."
Peterson runs the ranch by herself, spending 90 minutes of one-on-one time with each youth. She also offers monthly activity sessions, giving 5- to 7-year-olds a chance to bond with the animals while in small groups.
As part of her program, Peterson has begun teaching teenagers how to be junior mentors. One such mentor is 13-year-old Rachel Bass of Yakima, who visits the ranch to play with kids and ride horses.
"I've always wanted horses, so it's really fun to go there," she said. "The kids seem to be having a really good time, and they also learn respect for the animals too."
Jan Bass, Rachel's mother, said Bachelor Creek Ranch has a favorable and lasting effect on children, including her own daughter.
"After I pick Rachel up, she has this spark in her eyes and this amazing smile," she said. "It's therapeutic. When (youths) have success riding a horse or learning some skills, it helps them on the inside."
Peterson continues to self-support the ranch, but she does receive contributions in labor, services and money from volunteers, sponsors and businesses. In the future, she hopes to receive grants, enabling her to hire a staff and offer additional lessons.
Although managing the program is a lot of work, Amy Peterson said she knows one thing for sure: The ranch helps her mom just as much as the people who visit.
"She loves these animals so much," Amy said. "She wants to share them with everybody."