Nicholas H. Dean
American Family Association Journal
“We were drawn to the mission of French Camp Academy primarily out of a desire to see kids from broken homes cared for, mentored, and healed through a Christian family model, and discipled under Christ-likeness, so they can heal from the bumps and bruises life has given them,” said Lance Ragsdale of his and his wife’s decision to join the French Camp Academy staff in 2003.
Sprawling over the idyllic countryside of central Mississippi, FCA is indeed creating huge changes in the lives of its students. Founded as a school for girls by a group of Scots-Irish Christians in 1885, FCA found its current model of boarding (both boys and girls) in 1950. For the past 65 years, FCA has provided an education, a home, a strong Christian witness, and an opportunity for healing for its students.
Foundations FCA has earned a reputation for providing not only quality education but also a safe haven for students who yearn for a Christian education, who have struggled academically, or–most notably–who are coming from broken homes.
According to Ragsdale, FCA vice president of development, the structure of FCA consists of three foundational components. First is the home.
“We’re relationship driven, and the gospel permeates the relationships we build,” Ragsdale noted. The boarding homes reflect this relational permeation by equipping each with house parents, a married couple whose job is to care for the students living in the home. This allows for deep relationships and models a Christian marriage and life for the students, many of whom have likely never seen such examples before.
The next component is academics. All of the nearly 300 students in grades K-12 receive a quality, Christian education that is accredited by the Mississippi Department of Education. Speaking of the broad education taught through the lens of a Christian worldview, Ragsdale shared, “We believe this will help them to discern the things of the world.” However, this education does not stop at the walls of the classroom. Because of the dedicated teachers and boarding school model, opportunities for mentorship and tutoring beyond the classroom abound.
The third component is work. All students in grades 7 through 12 participate in an after school work program that rotates every nine weeks. A student might spend nine weeks working with WFCA, the ministry’s FM radio station, learning technical and business skills associated with the industry; move on to the public relations team for nine weeks and learn graphic design; and then work with FCA’s bed and breakfast to learn about hospitality.
“By the end of their time with us,” Ragsdale said proudly, “the students receive not only a diploma but also a resume with work experience and references. This is another profound way we develop them beyond the broken past that brought them to us.”
It is that broken past that brings many students to FCA’s doors. These boarding students are the core mission of FCA, and are often the ones who most need a safe place to live and learn.
“These students come from a variety of situations such as incarcerated parents, deceased parents, divorces, single parent situations, or state custody,” Ragsdale explained. “They just don’t have the structure they need at home to help them thrive in life. We really partner with them, and in most cases re-parent them.”
Along with the academic and spiritual care students receive, FCA offers a variety of counseling options. For example, Karen Cates, a certified equine therapist, uses horses to minister to young people. Through this form of therapy, students can learn relational principles, deal with issues of trust, and learn to cope with many other issues. Speaking to the importance of this counseling, Ragsdale noted, “The principles taught are transferred to their interpersonal relationships.”
In addition to equine therapy, FCA offers one-on-one and group counseling as needed, following a traditional model. In the past, grief therapy has been offered for students who have lost a parent and group therapy for those who have been adopted.
Ragsdale’s greatest frustration is that FCA’s unparalleled potential is still not fully realized. Of the resources available for 170 students to live on campus, only 75% are being utilized. He believes it’s because too few know the opportunity exists.
“We want the whole 170,” Ragsdale said. “We have the resources for them. We just need churches and communities to refer families who are broken. We just want to serve kids who are in brokenness. We want to break the bad cycles and build new generation cycles on redemption through Christ Jesus alone.”
Ragsdale and his fellow staffers challenge others to be involved in their communities, build relationships with families who do not know Christ, and remember FCA as a resource for churches and families when young people need to get away from a dysfunctional family situation.
Despite challenges of low awareness and the rigors of working with many students who know too much pain, Ragsdale humbly shared the victory he sees day in and day out:
“It’s been to see the lives of kids changed. Students who are the first in their families to go to college, or students who were lost when they came to us but are now sharing Christ with their peers. We get to rub shoulders with children, and to see them grow and mature–knowing what they’ve gone through–bears testimony to God’s grace in their lives.”
Offering God’s grace to students in need–it’s the legacy and purpose of FCA.