Annual Eagle Rock Easter Classic benefits local youth at boys’ ranch

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Mark Wilson leads a child and a group of cyclists in the Eagle Rock Easter Classic bike ride to benefit Eagle Rock Boys’ Ranch on Saturday, April 3 at Rainbow Middle School.

By Katie Bohannon, News Editor

Eagle Rock Boys’ Ranch hosted its second annual Eagle Rock Easter Classic bike ride Saturday, April 3 to support local youth. Over 100 cyclists lined up at Rainbow Middle School to benefit the boys’ ranch, braving the cold for a cause guaranteed to warm any heart.

“I think it’s good for the community,” said Eagle Rock board member and event coordinator Tom Bade. “It gets the community together. The cycling community is great as far as everybody supporting and coming in and making things happen. We’re so thankful that everyone has come out and blessed us with the opportunity to benefit the boys’ ranch.”

Eagle Rock’s participation more than doubled from last year’s race, which featured a little over 50 riders and suffered postponement due to COVID-19. Despite the setback, a collection of committed individuals gathered in August to uplift their community.

Growing up as a child in a dysfunctional home, current Eagle Rock director Belinda Hiti witnessed firsthand the emotional trauma children often experience and how circumstances affect lives. When personal tragedy struck her family with the death of her nephew, a person who Hiti described as someone akin to the boys at Eagle Rock, Hiti’s life forever changed. Though at the time she did not understand how or what her future might hold, Hiti knew there were so many children in the world like her nephew – individuals in need of help and direction and love – and she strove to become an active force in the solution.

Following her graduation from North Central University in Minnesota with a degree in social services and a minor in youth development, Hiti married her husband Andy and returned to Alabama.

She visited her husband one day, who was volunteering at Eagle Rock in Attalla, driving slowly with his lunch in the passenger seat. As she crossed the parking lot, a little boy (who Hiti came to know by his loving nickname ‘Snacky’) darted in front of her car, dashing over to Hiti’s window because he noticed the lunch pail in the seat and wondered if she had something to eat.

 Touched by that moment, Hiti and Andy became visiting resources for the boy and his family. She met Eagle Rock founder Scott Hilton the same day, who she spoke with for three hours about the organization’s mission, principles and vision for local youth. While Hiti never envisioned her role as Eagle Rock’s director, she left Hilton’s office knowing she found her place – a position that would cultivate her passion to nurture, encourage and inspire others.

 Hiti began her service with Eagle Rock as Hilton’s executive assistant almost fifteen years ago, learning about the ranch and how it functions. Hiti then served as program manager before Hilton passed the torch to her to become ranch director two years ago, entrusting Hiti to protect and preserve Eagle Rock’s mission: for its boys to find healing, experience family and prepare for the future.

 “I have a vision and a great desire that every boy would have a mentor,” said Hiti. “If I could do one thing before my time is through at Eagle Rock, it would be to establish a mentoring program where people know that it really doesn’t take a huge investment. Most of what I’ve learned is that kids need a caring adult in their life that will pray for them and encourage them. The amount of investment you can give, we can work with – because it’s important and it makes a difference.”

 Mentorship emerges as an important component of Eagle Rock’s program, which promotes positive and strong family units as examples for the boys it serves. Eagle Rock mentors work in all capacities, from inviting a boy to eat lunch after church, to attending family game nights, watching movies with friends or going fishing on a Saturday morning. The goal remains to include the children and teenagers in a healthy, safe and supportive family environment, where caring parental figures extend encouragement and nurture hope.

 While most individuals consider their own families and lives, Hiti pondered who children without parents or support systems call when they experience milestones in life. She questioned who would be there for those children when they become parents themselves, who would teach them the qualities found in good fathers and husbands, dance with them at their weddings, comfort them when they experience loss and celebrate with them when they accomplish their dreams.

 Though Hiti and her husband opened their doors to the Eagle Rock boys during the holidays, ensuring that every boy had a home on Thanksgiving and Christmas, their endless compassion and dedication culminated in the adoption of two boys from the ranch. One of Hiti’s sons just became a house parent himself, inspired to give back to the place that helped him.

Eagle Rock Boys’ Ranch began in 1994 when Hilton and his wife Diana (both Samford University graduates) contacted social workers regarding boys ages 9 to 19 who were having trouble being placed in traditional foster care. Inspired by his experiences mentoring a young man in college who fell through the cracks of foster care, Hilton and Diana chose to develop a faith-based program that focuses on at-risk youth from a variety of backgrounds. Hilton and Diana believed that all boys who crossed their paths shared two parallels: they are fearfully and wonderfully made by God and if given a chance, they can reach their potential for a productive life.

“A lot of places have a ‘three strikes you’re out’ policy,” said Hiti. “The heart of Eagle Rock is we just believe God loves us unconditionally. He gives us chances over and over. [God’s] love and forgiveness and stability is what we want to be for kids.”

Eagle Rock centers on character building through both intentional and individualized case management, assessing each boy’s personalized needs and addressing them with compassion and care. Eagle Rock staff and volunteers promote integrity, anger-management, behavior modification and coping skills, while teaching boys conflict resolution, respect for authority, self-discipline and self-control. Through life-skills coaching and mentoring, boys experience healthy lifestyles, learning what constitutes as positive relationships, strong work-ethics, how to construct personal boundaries and the importance of academic success.

Eagle Rock provides housing for boys whose living situations are not conducive to their betterment. When boys graduate to single-living situations, Eagle Rock offers apartments where the young men are taught budgeting and money management, learning real life experience regarding signing leases, acquiring and maintaining jobs and paying bills.

Hiti commended Etowah High School’s involvement with Eagle Rock, noting that the school plays a major role in encouraging the boys to thrive in sports, extra-curricular activities, volunteering throughout the community and civic involvements. While several boys live in situations where they move frequently, jumping from school to school and falling behind in coursework, Hiti noted that Attalla City Schools System works closely with Eagle Rock to embrace the boys, ensuring they recover lost credits and graduate on time.

Following the establishment of Eagle Rock thrift stores, which support the organization, the first mentoring center manifested for the boys with a woodworking shop. Eagle Rock plans to construct a small engine repair center, teaching boys how to build and repair, while performing maintenance on cars.

An environment founded on Christian principles, Eagle Rock encourages the boys’ involvement in church without imposition or obligation. Though Eagle Rock never forces its boys to attend church, the atmosphere it creates emerges as an extension of Christ’s love, influence and transformative nature.

“Part of our philosophy is you can’t force Christ on anybody, but you can live in such a way before them and show them love that they’re naturally drawn to what makes a difference in you,” said Hiti. “I know that’s what made a difference in my life – to love the boys, pray for them, take them to church. So many of them are really unrecognizable as the kids we got. It’s great to see them get the help they need.”

Eagle Rock breaks the cycle that perpetuates neglect, abuse, addiction and crime from generation to generation, showing local youth the invaluable potential within themselves and the endless possibilities available for their lives. Through the contributions Eagle Rock donates daily and the program’s positive intervention, boys transform into responsible, successful and productive men, veering from a past that never defines them and striving toward a brighter future.

“I’ve learned that one person (not just through adoption) can absolutely make all the difference in the life of a child,” said Hiti. “If you can just be a supporter, be somebody they can call when they have a need. I’ve learned that it doesn’t take a lot…it just takes somebody they know is there for them, that they can depend on to support them.”

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