Honoring an Enduring Partnership: Union Presbyterian Church with Rancho Santa Marta

An early partnership. How could we not respond? That’s the answer from an American couple in 1978 who had prayed for God’s direction in their lives and He answered! Bill and Kaye Lawrence stepped through the door God had opened to start a new Mexican orphanage – Rancho Santa Marta. With their own four children, five homeless Mexican children, and a housekeeper, they accepted the call to convert a 450-acre former pig ranch in the agricultural region 75 miles south of Ensenada into a home for homeless children. [1]

The same question, “How could we not respond?” was presented to Union Presbyterian Church less than two years. Alerted to the fledging Mexican ministry by their new pastor, Kent Meads, the members of UPC responded – stepping through the door of ministry opportunity. That step, taken more than 30 years ago has become an enduring partnership of great value.

UPC participation was modest at first – some individuals contributed monetarily, another gave their second car, another a utility trailer, others donated needed tools and supplies, and many prayed. All were vital to the embryonic ministry.

In 1986 UPC sent its first mission team to Santa Marta. Working alongside a team from Santa Clara Presbyterian Church, they spent a week in a bright Mexican sun mixing, pouring, and finishing 50 yards of concrete for the foundation for the Lawrence’s family home. The following year UPC sent its own mission team led by Karen Philips and Lou Hart. And for the next 18 years, the congregation looked forward to this annual ministry, some as traveling participants, some as background support in preparing, equipping, training and sending the team, and many as prayer and financial supporters.

In addition, UPC, through its mission budget, has contributed generously and consistently to the financial support of the orphanage and the associated school for learning-handicapped children. Faithful to its commitment over these many years, UPC has been consistently one of the most significant and dependable supporters of Rancho Santa Marta.

Beyond sustaining financial support and volunteer teams, UPC has generously met special needs. One remarkable example occurred in 2005 when the church’s volunteer team became aware of a blind Mexican pastor in Ensenada who was about to become homeless. The team returned home and, over the next year, raised over $70,000 to purchase a vacant lot in Ensenada and provide money for local Mexican church members to build a small home for the pastor and his wife. A remarkable outcome of partnership in Christ’s love!

God’s Expanding Call on Rancho Santa Marta. The ministry has come a long way since its modest beginnings. The ranch grew to become a permanent home for 40-50 homeless children. Some were street children from Ensenada and other communities, placed there by the Mexican social services department. Others were brought to the doorstep by destitute farm worker parents who were simply too poor to provide for them.

The physical conversion of a pig ranch to a home for orphaned and abandoned children was entirely the result of the work of literally hundreds of volunteer work teams like UPC’s whose men and women, skilled and unskilled workers, adults and youth, brought their energy, commitment and skills to make Rancho Santa Marta an attractive and effective ministry facility. It has been on the shoulders of this incredible, constant train of volunteer resources that God has enabled Santa Marta to be built.

Along the way, it became clear that many of the children had special educational needs, the consequences of living in unstable, unloved, and often abusive environments. The ranch school started small but, recognizing the severe need, set some bold goals for itself. Kaye Lawrence, a nurse by original training, committed herself to continual study and training in the methodologies for working with special needs children. Staff was trained and programs were established that gained the school a widely regarded reputation for success. The Department of Education granted the school accreditation in 2002, making it, at the time, the only special education school in Baja.

Now, another 10 years down the road, the school has grown to not only serve the ranch children, but over 100 special needs children from the surrounding communities. Some commute from 20 or more miles away to attend the school. A few others, from even further distances, stay at the home as weekday residents, and return to their families on weekends.

The nine-level school operates from a separate mini-campus, surrounding a landscaped central quad, on the ranch property with 19 classrooms constituting about 12,000 square feet of space. Some of the academic levels are subdivided to accommodate exceptionally severe or diverse educational needs. In addition to specially trained teachers, the staff includes an occupational therapist, a social worker. Along the way, Kaye completed her PhD in clinical psychologist, an immensely important value to the ministry. The school is also blessed with some of the latest advances in equipment for working with especially challenged children:

  • Rancho Santa Martaan Interactive Metronome Box was donated by members of the UPC congregation,
  • a special therapy room well equipped with a variety of Snoezelen Multi-Sensory Environment [2] devices was purchased with funds raised by a racer in the Baja 1000 motorcycle race.

The children’s home remains, as it always has been, a cornerstone of the ministry, with modest houses enabling the children to be grouped by age and gender into separate homes with house parents in each. As the only real home that many of the children have ever known, it remains a place for the young adults who are away from the ranch at a university or technical school to return on weekends or school breaks.

Rancho Santa Marta now has a full-time mostly Mexican national staff of 30 teachers and other school workers, house parents and other support for the children’s home, and a small administrative and logistical support staff. It’s a lean staff with an annual budget now over $600,000.

Gods Hand in Times of Need. The recent years of economic distress have been an invigorating affirmation of God’s plan for us, a reminder that He is faithful to his calling, but also both a promise and a warning that He is in control. The support for the ministry declined a painful 33% from the manageable level of five years ago to the low point in the recession. What were thought to be prudent and adequate financial reserves had been exhausted by the third year of the recession. In the summer of 2009 we had to give lay-off notices to some teachers in anticipation that the funds to begin school in the fall would not be adequate to maintain full staffing. But God showed up. A private foundation that knew us stepped forward quickly in July just before the start of school with a matching grant opportunity that ultimately resulted in over $75,000 being donated to fund operations. In another remarkable story, a Baja 1000 Motorcycle Race contestant used his website to promote Santa Marta and raised nearly $15,000 from race fans.

2012 seems to be a year in which the overall economy is turning the corner. Our support, while not yet returning to the pre-recession levels, is getting gradually improving, especially among with our individual supporters. Here is a chart of the trend we are experiencing. [3]

Rancho Santa Marta Donor Support 2012

What the Future Holds. After 35 years in the demanding, but incredibly gratifying position as leaders of the ministry, Bill and Kaye are phasing into a modified role. Tina and Rod Struiksma, the Lawrence’s daughter and son-in-law are assuming a more robust role in the future of the ministry. They had served in the ministry together for more than 15 years before taking a 3-year furlough with their family to live and work in the U.S. They returned to the ministry during 2012. They bring to the leadership of the ministry not only their academic credentials and experience as teachers with special education skills, but 15 years of history at Rancho Santa Marta.

The new energy and fresh ideas that Rod and Tina bring are inducing what is becoming the next inflection point in the continuing revelation of God’s plan for Rancho Santa Marta. Because of the exceptional reputation of the school, the demand for space for learning-handicapped students from the local region is continually exceeding the staffing capacity. So, one of the constant needs is for qualified staff.

On the ministry’s planning calendar is the expansion of the school to include a full high school. This will provide an option to the public high school in Ensenada. Even more important, it will provide high school opportunity for some of the children whose learning disabilities prevent them from gaining admittance to the public high school. We view this as a vital opportunity that they should not be denied regardless of their limitations. Establishing this full 12-level school capable of serving the learning-handicapped children of the region is a key priority.

Union Presbyterian Church has been a vital partner for many years and we pray that the partnership can continue for many more. And we do indeed hope that it is a two-way partnership for you in which you benefit as well as contribute. We have long realized that part of our role is to support American churches in enabling and equipping their congregations to serve in the name of Christ.

We extend thanks and blessing to you as you seek to follow our Lord’s calling.

                                                                          With sincere appreciation,

                                                                          Rancho Santa Marta

A Clear Call. It has rapidly become clear that God is calling us to broaden the ministry by enriching our junior high school program, and by creating a formal high school. Our junior high program developed out of necessity to meet the needs of our children, but was interrupted in its development by the economic recession which severely limited our resources. Consequently, we had to patch the program together with what our resources would permit. Among other consequences of this approach is that the government licensing board mandates that we operate under the supervision of the local public school rather than as our own independently licensed school. Frankly, this is awkward, unduly restrictive, and is not up the standards to which we aspire. So, we are moving intently to upgrade our program in terms of facilities and programmatic offerings. New, larger, and more contiguous classrooms will include laboratory facilities, computer, music, and art space.

In concert with the enrichment of our junior high program, we know we must move forward with plans for a formal high school. A high school on our campus will provide for our children an option to the public high school in Ensenada. Even more important, it will provide high school opportunity for some of the children whose learning disabilities prevent them from succeeding, or even gaining acceptance to the public high school. Lacking a high school diploma will severely limit their access to meaningful employment and useful lives. A high school education is vital opportunity that they must not be denied regardless of their limitations. We have already begun a pilot high school program with several of the children of our home with the intent, if it is successful, to push forward.

Certainly, these two major efforts -- an enhanced junior high and a new senior high -- are major and bold undertakings. But we have a powerful God whom we are convinced has made a clear call on us to take this on. And so, knowing he will provide the resources, we are moving forward.

[1] Enjoy reading Palace of the Pigs, the story written by Kaye Lawrence chronicling the path that God led them through in establishing the orphanage.

[2] Snoezelen Multi-Sensory Environment tools were developed and have long been in use in Europe. The equipment is now being used in over 1500 sites in North America, including veterans’ treatment centers, nursing homes and special education schools.

[3] 2012 graph does not include an endowment established by a bequest and associated memorial gifts totaling $86,000.


Former REPORT: Rancho Santa Marta Short-Term Mission

For over 20 years UPC has been supporting Rancho Santa Marta, a Christian school and orphanage in Baja California. Most of these years we have sent support teams to help build and maintain the facilities, to participate in cross-cultural ministry, and to share in some of the powerful work that God is doing through this mission. Each year we schedule our mission support trip for in the early spring.

Rancho Santa MartaRancho Santa Marta operates the only officially licensed school for learning-handicapped children in the Baja as well as a home for homeless children. Located on a 450-acre ranch in a striking desert setting 175 miles south of the U.S. border and 15 miles from the ocean, the mission is managed by Bill and Kaye Lawrence, Americans who have been in Mexican youth ministry most of their adult lives. The facilities are modern, safe, and sanitary, relieving our team of any concern about immunizations, safe water, and similar issues that we sometimes associate with mission trips. If you haven't ever experienced how God can use you, and change you, through a short term mission, this is a perfect opportunity to take that step. You will be forever changed.

Youth, families, and singles are all welcome. Team size is limited to 40 people. Begin planning now to save this week and join the team for this richly rewarding experience of work, cross-cultural ministry, and personal spiritual growth.