Miracle Mountain: A Hidden Sanctuary for Children, Horses, and Birds off a Road Less Traveled
by Richard McKenzie
Dickens Press, 2013
196 pages ($18.95)
Orphanages of an earlier era, say, before the 1960s, are widely believed to have been hell holes that cruelly worked and starved the children in their care, as portrayed in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. To this day, Dickensian images of orphanages continue to throttle the public debate over how to best care for children of deprivation, neglect, and abuse.
Richard McKenzie spent much of the fall of 2011 embedded in a self-proclaimed “modern-day orphanage,” The Crossnore School, which is home for close to a hundred children in a remote corner of North Carolina’s Appalachian Mountains. Miracle Mountain: A Hidden Sanctuary for Children, Horses, and Birds Off of a Road Less Traveled is his account of life there, as related through the eyes of the children in residence who have heartbreaking and heartwarming stories of childhood traumas and recoveries. McKenzie explains why children who enter The Crossnore School today have more problems than those in orphanages of the past—with their problems ranging from severe deprivation brought on from drug- and alcohol-addicted parents to physical and sexual abuse. Many of these children have also suffered from cycles of foster-care placements and then reunification with parents who all too often pour on more abuse and neglect.
McKenzie found The Crossnore School to be a beautiful, peaceful place apart (literally, in the middle of nowhere) where hurting children can find a sanctuary in which they can renew and redirect their spirits and lives. The school has an equestrian center with horses that also have been rescued from abuse and neglect. The equestrian center provides two-way therapy, with the horses helping the children overcome their problems while the children help the horses to restore their trust in human beings. The reference in the book’s title to Crossnore being a sanctuary for birds comes from the many birdfeeders and birdbaths scattered across the Crossnore campus, which are tended by crews of small children.
No account of Crossnore would be complete without coverage of its head Phyllis Crain who, in her twelve years at the school’s helm, transformed the campus. She guided the school with a down-to-earth philosophy and with a passion for children rarely found in child welfare circles.
Miracle Mountain has been written for a general audience, especially readers who are attracted to heartwarming stories from one of the most unlikely of places, an “orphanage.” However, the book has a larger policy purpose, to reignite the debate over the place of children’s homes in a menu of childcare options.
McKenzie is the Walter B. Gerken Professor Emeritus in the Merage School of Business at the University of California, Irvine. He has written more than thirty books, including The Home: A Memoir of Growing Up in an Orphanage, a deeply personal account of his own childhood that helps explain his continuing interest in the fates of today’s disadvantage children.