The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


Pure Joy

Rancher's decision to share her land changes lives

If you've got a major decision to make, consider a pilgrimage to a pile of rocks in eastern South Dakota. The locals call it Decision Rock Hill. It's on this hill that Kyle and Betsy Debertin decided to accept the co-director positions of Joy Ranch, the ELCA's newest outdoor ministry site.

But more importantly, it's where Joy Nelson decided to share her ranch with others.

Nelson is a realtor and rancher in Watertown, S.D. "It was a picture perfect Sunday and I was watching the sun go down," Nelson said, describing the moment in 1999 when she made a decision that changed her life and the lives of others. "The thought occurred to me that this needed to be shared."

She visited with her pastor at the time, Gary Westgard, and decided to will her 92-acre ranch, seven miles northwest of Watertown, to Lutherans Outdoors in South Dakota. But then she had a second epiphany: she would give it now, rather than later. After years of inviting church and civic groups out to her ranch, she'd seen what ministry her horses could do with kids at risk and with physical disabilities.

"Even though I wasn't very old (44), the decision began a 13-year journey [of preparation]. Why don't we do this now, and we can all be there together now, not later?" she recalled asking herself.

After 10 years of planning, three years of construction and a $4.7-million capital campaign, Joy Ranch opened this summer — the first ELCA camp built from the ground up to host people with physical disabilities. It is barrier-free and completely accessible. Its mantra? All are welcome.

Nelson continues to live and ranch there and has been a key player in bringing the Joy Ranch dream to reality. Kyle Debertin uses the phrase "concept to reality" when he shows guests the ranch. On June 2, the summer staff of nine expected 800 people to attend the ranch's open house, but 3,000 came to wander the Old West town, pet the horses, churn butter, pose in the photo booth and listen to live music.

It's the Old West because ...

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February issue


Embracing diversity