When Toni and I went to visit Cornerstone Ranch a few weeks ago, I was excited to step outside my comfort zone and open my mind to a different perspective.
As we drove along the back roads of McKinney and got a little lost, eventually we made our way up a long driveway. I could see an opening ahead of us. The most beautiful, gleaming, and impressive home was in the clearing. We were greeted by a friendly little dog named Lucy. Immediately the door swung open, and Ivonne Rodriguez, Toni’s friend, ushered us in with warm hellos and smiles.
A woman named Laura, one of the residents, introduced herself and quickly informed us that she made hats. Next up, Amanda took one sweeping look at Toni from the ground to the top of her head to her baby bump and said, “Whoa!” I stepped forward to introduce myself to one of the guys named Jason, when everyone quickly interrupted and informed me that he’s nonverbal—apparently it was no big deal. They were a family, and this was their way of protecting him and helping me feel comfortable in their home. Their home is Cornerstone Ranch, and from what I gathered about it online, I knew it was a residence and day program for individuals with special needs. What I would learn about it by the end of our visit was that it’s so much more.
Ivonne and Doug (one of the resident caretakers) started walking and explaining how it all began. Cornerstone was originally the brainchild of two young newlyweds, David and Cynthia Heaton. At 23, they realized there was a significant need for adults with special needs. They wanted to help their friends lead more independent and fulfilled lives, while being able to call someplace a home. Eventually with the help of their family, the Heaton’s bought 42 acres of land and created Cornerstone Ranch.
The first residents, who came to the ranch in 2006, were Amanda, Sarah, and Laura, and they still live there today. One by one, each resident was itching to show off their room and get photographed. As we saw, each room really reflected each resident’s personality and style. Amanda loved to draw. Sarah was a hat and wig enthusiast. And Laura was the world’s best aunt, showing us as many framed photographs as her nightstand and dresser would permit. She beamed with pride, as she told us about the newest member of her family.
On the boys’ side of the house David showed us his mural of Bevo, and we bonded over my UT alma mater. Having just celebrated his fortieth birthday, he was the oldest resident at Cornerstone and the house’s sports aficionado.
Jake and Will shared a room, and Jason had a bright and sunny room all to himself. On the tour, Doug mentioned that Jason’s eyesight was rapidly deteriorating. Each week at Cornerstone’s art lessons, Jason’s uncanny attention to detail was easily seen in his extraordinary art work. The tour was over fairly quickly, and we all headed to the cozy kitchen table to learn a bit more about this special facility and how it all works.
Currently, there are 7 residents and 15 day programmers. They have a routine to follow every day and every week, including daily devotionals and exercise. In addition, they also have classes for art, candle making, knitting, horse riding, and card making. Ivonne is adamant that each resident and day programmer do as much as possible on their own. “I encourage my volunteers to teach them the skill and then let them be. We don’t have to be worried about the painting being perfect. We need to worry about them feeling successful.”
Their art teacher had been with Cornerstone for over two years, and Ivonne explained that she could not have done it alone without the help of these expert volunteers. Their candle-making expert has also been making candles for seven years. Together with the residents, they make soy candles without any harmful or toxic ingredients. It’s important to the residents and Cornerstone to make quality products, ensuring that everything is clean, green, and sustainable.
In addition to these activities, they also leave the ranch for day excursions. Some of their activities include basketball practice, dance classes, and cheerleading.
One thing that is super important to Cornerstone is to choose activities that encourage responsibility and self-confidence. Horse riding is one example of this because the residents connect with such large animals, controlling the ride and what happens. They also have the responsibility of brushing and taking care of the animals after the ride. For the residents that do not feel comfortable with the horses, they deliver Meals on Wheels instead. Ivonne and Doug reiterate several times that the purpose of Cornerstone is to provide abundant life. “Not everyone is going to be happy sitting around and knitting all day,” Ivonne said. What she’d like to hopefully do next is bring in a horticulture expert to help them grow their own produce and create a more self-sustaining operation.
Recently, they just broke ground on a new activity center. As it is right now, the day programmers have to meet in the house where the residents live, but this new activity center will provide a space for more individuals to join the program, while also keeping the house a sanctuary for its residents.
As Cornerstone grows, so does their need for expansion. Each year, for the past three years, they have held an art fund-raiser and have been increasingly successful. With the first one, they were able to repair their much-used van and put a little away for the activity center. After the second one, they received a generous private donation and were able to break ground on their activity center. And right now, they’re gearing up for their third fund-raiser this November. They’re crossing their fingers that this one will help them get started toward their million-dollar goal for a second home to add to their growing Cornerstone Ranch compound.
In order to help the Cornerstone residents have meaningful and prosperous lives, Ivonne believes in their ability to make and sell quality products that everyday consumers would be interested in purchasing. “I don’t want our products to sell because people have pity,” she says. “I just fell in love with this place.” She took a moment to reflect, and then a big grin spread across her face. “They might need to kick me out of here when I am 85!”
At that moment, the three resident girls came through the kitchen with Miranda, Doug’s wife. They were all headed to the beauty salon to get their nails done for Valentine’s Day, and right after, they would be headed to cheer practice. As they happily walked out the door, Ivonne said, “I feel very blessed to get to hang out with them every day.”
She continued, “Supposedly they have a disability, but I think it’s not a disability. We have the disabilities. Yes, maybe we can provide for ourselves and work to have a completely independent lifestyle, but they can love others without judging.”
Despite all of this, they still have very adult challenges. Ivonne explained that Laura grew melancholy when her sister became pregnant. She would walk around rubbing her belly. It was as if she knew her biological clock was broken. Once the baby arrived, she eventually brightened up again, but Ivonne was convinced that Laura was aware. “We try to make their lives abundant in a way that they are not suffering for the things they would want to have.”
Cornerstone wants to also provide an abundant life for the parents. It’s important for the parents to have a place where they can leave their kids without having to worry about something happening. Ivonne and Doug shared a story about a mother that had to pick her son up from school when he was eight years old because he’d been locked in a closet for hours.
Because of stories like this, Cornerstone Ranch is committed to expanding their facility to help fulfill this great need for the many disabled adults with nowhere to turn.
Seven residents and fifteen day programmers may not seem like a lot, but this is live-in care. Cornerstone truly is giving abundant, fulfilling, beautiful opportunities to each and every one of their adults with special needs. After meeting Sarah, Laura, Amanda, Jake, Will, Jason, and David, I realized how needlessly I worried. These are amazing people, and they have welcoming hearts. And after only a few hours, they felt like new and wonderful friends.
Below is a video from Cornerstone’s website. It showcases the radiant personalities of some of the residents and day programmers, and it gives you an idea of how amazing the ranch itself is. Watch it and fall in love with this place just like Toni and I did. If you’d like to donate, click here. If you’d like to know more about volunteering at Cornerstone, click here. We’ll definitely be visiting again soon, and we can’t wait to share more and collaborate on projects in the future!