By Wayne Schutsky


In southern Gilbert, where Val Vista Drive meets Hunt Highway and gives way to open desert, there sits a working ranch that can house nearly 150 horses for riders and owners from around the East Valley. While horse properties are a dime a dozen in the area, this one stands out from the crowd for one reason: it doubles as a recovery center for men fighting addiction.

The John Volken Academy Ranch is a therapeutic community that provides job and life skills training to recovering addicts on the program’s 50-plus-acre property. The John Volken Academy also runs therapeutic communities in Vancouver and Seattle.

At the ranch, residents pay a one-time $5,000 intake fee and the program provides a grant for further expenses. Much of those expenses are offset by the work the students perform as part of their recovery.

The program is not for everyone. The ranch only accepts male students between the ages of 18 and 32. Volken said his residents typically come from “good families,” so they “know there is a better life out there.”

Students live and work on site and perform all jobs necessary to keep the operation running. They start out mucking stalls and then move onto other jobs, including putting injured horses through water therapy and running the feed store. There are also off-site jobs such as landscaping and maintaining a venue for weddings and other events.  

“The reason we are able to stay here is because we are bringing in money. We are running a business,” said Traydon, a student at the ranch who asked not to use his last name.

The work aspect of the program is an important part of each student’s recovery, because it gives them the skills they will need to hold down a job in the real world.

“They learn social skills, leadership skills and work ethic; they build character,” founder John Volken said.

He added that work is only one aspect of the program, which also includes teaching students social skills and putting them through encounter groups where students hold each other accountable for correcting bad behaviors.

“All these little things add up,” Volken said. “They constantly learn to interact with others.”

Members of the treatment program work together on agriculture and gardening.

“For me it is easy to say the right things and act the right way, but because the time is so long and there is so much that goes into it –  it’s not just therapy and it’s not just work…you can’t act or (fake) your way through that,” said Logan, a student who works in the ranch’s call center.

He added, “Eventually your true self comes out. Good or bad, you have to work on some things.”

Confronting those bad behaviors is no easy task.

“It’s hard. It’s not easy, but that is what makes this program different,” said Zack, another student who works in the call center.

The program lasts two years, though it can last longer if a student’s recovery requires more time.

“It’s a change-your-life program; it goes on however long it takes,” Volken said.

The program’s length is a key component to student success, because it gives them time to relearn healthy behaviors in a safe environment, Volken said.

“I know they’re not choir boys when they come on board, and it takes time to turn the ship around,” he added.

The students agree.

“One of the most important parts is the amount of time that we get to recover in a safe place and recover physically, mentally and emotionally from whatever addiction we are recovering from,” Redfern said.

“A safe place to be for two years is huge,” he said.

Despite the work and treatment schedule, there is time for recreation, too. Student Taylor Redfern, who has been in the program for just over two years, said he enjoys playing volleyball and going to the park. Students also make occasional visits to the movies or special events like Cavalia, the Cirque du Soleil-style horse show, thanks to donations from community members.

“There are a lot of volunteers in the community that donate time and money for us to do different activities,” Redfern said.