Surrounded by Miles of Pastures, a Unique School Helps Teens Rebuild Their Lives

Surrounded by Miles of Pastures, a Unique School Helps Teens Rebuild Their Lives
Students and staff are seen horseback riding at the Rock Solid Refuge near Shaunavon, Sask. (Courtesy Rock Solid Refuge)
Doug Lett

SHAUNAVON, Sask.—If you see Rock Solid Refuge from a distance, you might just mistake it for another Prairie farm in southwestern Saskatchewan.

There’s a barn and various other buildings that wouldn’t look out of place on a typical farm. They’re surrounded by miles of fields and pastures.

But if you drive closer, you soon realize it’s much more.

“A lot of parents that reach out to us, they will say, ‘We have exhausted everything else that we have found, every other resource, every government program, every counselling system. ... We’ve exhausted all of our other options that we’ve come across. You’re our last hope,’” said Dallas Block, executive director of Rock Solid Refuge (RSR).

The school was founded in 2005 as a non-profit and is run by an independent board. “Restoring Adolescent Lives” is its slogan, and the school is aimed at boys from 13 to 18. Because each teen needs a lot of work and attention, they typically only take in 8 to 10 students a year.

Mr. Block said young people come to them with a variety of problems, from drug or pornography addiction to serious behavioural problems.

“We’re working with teens and families that are in crisis because of addictions and other life-controlling issues,” said Mr. Block. “It’s one thing [to] detox somebody off of drugs, and maybe give them some pointers in a 28-day program. But it’s another thing to try to rebuild ... foundational belief systems in a person,” he said.

That’s especially true in a culture where many of the problems facing young people appear to be getting worse, said Mr. Block, pointing to what he believes are contributing factors, such as the legalization of marijuana and the wide availability of pornography.

The barn at Rock Solid Refuge near Shaunavon, Sask., on May 18, 2024. (Doug Lett/The Epoch Times)
The barn at Rock Solid Refuge near Shaunavon, Sask., on May 18, 2024. (Doug Lett/The Epoch Times)

“The cultural shifts around legalization of marijuana has, I think, radically shifted the acceptance of self-medicating,” he said. “Culturally, we’ve shifted, and we’ve kind of given our permission to the young people that, ‘Hey, it’s normal to self-medicate. You don’t feel good? Try this.’”

Pornography, he said, has also emerged as a significant problem for many.

“The availability of pornography has radically changed young people and young men,” he said, adding that some studies have found pornography can be as addicting as cocaine.

“And so we’ve normalized some of these things, which has just absolutely devastated our youth and young adult population,” he said. “There’s a far greater hopelessness amongst our young generation,“ who have been handed ”a vision of a future (that) is very dismal.”

‘A Plan and a Future and a Hope’

Although not affiliated with a specific church, the school is unabashedly Christian. Students commit to living at the school for a year. And in addition to distance education, mostly through Saskatchewan’s Distance Learning Centre, they do daily chores and other activities that are dramatically different from those of their former lives, such as riding horses, tending a garden, or helping a local farmer with work. Mobile phones are not allowed.

While some of the teens the school serves come from backgrounds that are chaotic and dysfunctional, others come from homes that, at least on the outside, look stable.

“They’re living in chaos,” Mr. Block said, and so Rock Solid gives them “an environment that’s by and large peaceful, hopeful, engaging, relational, and at the foundation, spiritual, Christian, pointing to a God who created us, cares for us.” In short, it offers “a plan and a future and a hope.”

He said the school tries to foster maturity, responsibility, and charity, partly through a daily routine that starts on weekdays with a 7:30 a.m. wakeup. The teens are responsible for getting themselves to the dining hall for breakfast within about 20 minutes. They have daily chores like washing dishes and keeping their bunk space clean, along with schoolwork.

Many of the students have had major gaps in their education because of behavioural problems, he said. “Our students need help and attention and motivation.”

Along with schoolwork, there are biblical assignments, as well as time for recreation. Students are also assigned mentors.

“We hold them accountable to honesty, respect, and obedience,“ Mr. Block said. ”And we believe those are just basic character qualities that will serve them well in their home, in their future home with a spouse and kids hopefully, in their communities, and in their jobs.”

Until arriving at the school, most of the students have been “takers” who need to learn to contribute to the world around them.

For example, some of the students recently asked for an extended phys-ed period so they could go swimming and fishing at a nearby bridge that spans a creek.

Mr. Block checked with the education assistant on how the boys’ morning had been and whether they had been “knocking it out of the park.”

Hearing the response of “so so,” Mr. Block turned to the boys and said, “You need to give your supervisor, whoever that is, whether it’s at a job, whether it’s here in school, ... every reason to say yes to requests like that.”

He believes the school’s rural setting—the nearest town is half an hour away—helps, offering the boys the opportunity to ride horses and care for the cats and dogs. “All of a sudden being around animals regularly, and being in the open spaces, I really do think it makes a difference,” he said.

The main building at Rock Solid Refuge, showing some of the garden in the foreground, near Shaunavon, Sask., on May 18 2024. (Doug Lett/The Epoch Times).
The main building at Rock Solid Refuge, showing some of the garden in the foreground, near Shaunavon, Sask., on May 18 2024. (Doug Lett/The Epoch Times).

Some of the students might go through “an urban withdrawal for the first month, but most of them just settle into being quite peaceful.”

The school takes students from as far as B.C. and Ontario, and is one of only a few in Canada offering such a program. As a result, Rock Solid Refuge gets a lot of inquiries, and although it’s not cheap, the $2,200 per month it charges is a lot less than it would be if it charged full price.

“We’re fundraising $10,000 per kid per month, when it comes down to it,” Mr. Block said.

Despite the many success stories, it does not always work. Some teens make the decision to leave, and there is a process for doing that.

But even in those cases, there can be surprising results.

‘Take Responsibility’

Take Ty Thibault. Back in 2014, he was in and out of a troubled home and was in conflict with the law. His grandparents heard about Rock Solid Refuge and told Ty’s mother.

Now an adult, Mr. Thibault told The Epoch Times that he was facing time in custody when his mother asked the judge for a term at Rock Solid instead.

“They gave me the option to either stay in jail for eight months or to go to this program for a year. And at the time, I figured I most definitely needed some change, but I wasn’t sure what I was going to do.”

He opted for Rock Solid Refuge.

While he liked some aspects of the school—such as doing chores with a local farmer—he decided to leave after six months.

Yet his time there helped him make what he believes was a pivotal decision.

He said the daily devotionals, and some of the books he read, helped him realize that there must be some kind of intelligence behind the universe.

“That was like the first thing that sparked my interest and attention,“ he said. ”There’s got to be something that made all this happen, right? It’s not by chance.”

Listening to some of the staff who’d had their lives changed by faith in Christ also made a big impression, and so he made a decision to follow Christ. Looking back, he believes that was the school’s biggest impact on him.

“The biggest thing that [RSR] did for me was it brought me to my faith in Christ.”

He left Rock Solid Refuge and found his life spiralling back down.

“I started hanging out with the same crowd I was hanging out with before, and then just right back to it,” he said.

Gradually, however, his life started to straighten out. He was allowed to move into an apartment building on his own and he met his future wife.

They’re now married and have a child. At 25, he’s working in the oil industry.

Seeing teens’ lives go downhill after leaving Rock Solid is not that uncommon, according to Mr. Block.

“The one thing that I didn’t expect was the fact that for a lot of kids, relapse is a part of recovery. That always bothers me. It still bothers me.”

Although few schools offer the kind of intensive intervention that Rock Solid does, there is a growing trend toward independent schools across Canada, according to research by the Cardus Institute, a think tank based in Ontario.

“There’s definitely an increasing amount of interest,” said Cardus researcher Joanna DeJong VanHof. She said enrolment in independent schools has been rising significantly faster than in public schools for almost 20 years.

For most parents, it’s a choice being made to get a better education for their kids, said Ms. VanHof. She sees the schools offering many more “opportunities for parental involvement within their children’s education. And so they really start to feel like they have a voice and that their children have that supportive, nurturing environment.”

For Mr. Thibault, the change in environment at RSR taught him lessons about growing up.

“It just taught me like when you make a mistake, you take responsibility,” he said. “I had no male role models growing up. … They showed me that as well.”

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