A Vergas woman has opened up the gates of her horse ranch to underprivileged youth in a mission to spread love, connect kids with animals, and teach them about responsibility and the value of hard work.

Emily Mingo says she was called by God to create her new Firefly Fields Youth Ranch, and she considers the faith-based nonprofit organization a personal ministry.

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"I give credit to God for its existence," she says of the ranch. "God's got a plan."

That plan has been quietly in the works for all of Mingo's life, but it kicked into high gear two years ago, when she purchased her 13-acre rural property on County Highway 36, on Long Lake. With large fenced-in pens, two sizable horse barns and other smaller outbuildings, it checked off a lot of the right boxes for a youth ranch.

Mingo was still finishing her college degree then, working on a bachelor of science in general agriculture, with a minor in equine science, at North Dakota State University. She had been working at the Perham Zorbaz, as well as the Detroit Lakes Community and Cultural Center, and then got a job as a paraprofessional at Frazee-Vergas Elementary School. She was struggling with the decision of what to do after college; she had so many interests - animals, kids, education, faith - that she was having trouble pinpointing her path.

That all changed with a trip to Oregon in 2017, where she attended an informational clinic on youth ranches. While there, she learned from successful ranchers how to start and maintain a strong operation of her own back home - something she had never thought possible before. The experience opened her eyes, and it made her believe that her longtime dream could become a reality.

"I knew that I loved animals, and I knew that I liked teaching, but I didn't know how to put that together (into a career)," she says. "I have a million little dreams and interests; this ranch is something that just pulled everything together."

From the time she was little, Mingo found comfort in animals, especially dogs and horses, and she bonded best with other kids when she was sharing her love of animals with them. She grew up on a horse ranch on Leek Lake, and her parents took in foster children, she says; she would often get to know them by teaching them how to ride horses.

"When I teach kids how to ride, all their worries just seem to kind of drop," she says. "The horses have a very calming presence."

It didn't take Mingo long to apply what she'd learned at that clinic in Oregon to her own ranch back home. Just about a year later, in April of 2018, Firefly Fields Youth Ranch became an official 501(c)3 nonprofit. Mingo made a website for the ranch, started doing a little fundraising, and mentored her first dozen or so kids that summer.

Kids who visit Firefly Fields usually go once a week all summer long, for 90 minutes at a time. They spend the first half-hour doing a farm chore, like feeding the animals or cleaning a stall, which "teaches them responsibility and commitment and lets them take a piece of ownership in the ranch," Mingo explains.

Then the rest of the time, the kids can do an activity of their choosing. They can learn to ride a horse, hang out with Mingo's five dogs, many cats, goat or chickens, or can even do gardening projects or crafts around the farm.

"We want them to feel good when they come here," Mingo says of the ranch's mission. "Whatever the kid wants to do that day, we just go with it. We're teaching them some life skills along the way, helping build confidence and self-esteem, and they're getting to spend one-on-one time with a mentor who really cares and will leave them feeling better about themselves."

"A lot of kids just don't have access to spending time in the country," she adds, "and I want to give them that."

The relaxed nature of Firefly Fields is an asset that sets it apart from other youth ranches in the region, Mingo believes. There's no clinical, therapeutic use of the horses, and no required structured activities beyond the half-hour of chores. The ranch is open to a broad spectrum of kids, whether they're from low-income families, are emotionally stressed, or are simply in need of some time outdoors. Participating families bear no cost whatsoever.

"We might be a little less experienced than some other places," Mingo says, "but we're really doing it for the kids."

Mingo has already seen the positive effects the ranch can have on kids. Last summer, she watched kids grow and improve and develop their strengths over the course of the season, she says - one young girl even conquered her fear of dogs. At the start of the summer, the girl wouldn't go anywhere near Mingo's five large-breed hounds, but by the end of the season she was helping to bathe them.

In the future, Mingo would like to continue to make improvements to her ranch, and to expand. She's in the midst of a major project to install new permanent fencing around the property, and after that there'll be an outdoor arena, with room for poles and barrels and other equine games for the kids to play. She'd like to recruit some additional volunteers to mentor more kids, or even just to help maintain the ranch through tasks like gardening and cleaning.

She plans to do more fundraising, as well. Her next, and biggest fundraiser yet, will be held at the ranch on Sunday, June 2.

Firefly Fields Youth Ranch is open to all children, regardless of religious affiliation, Mingo says. Though the ranch is a faith-based organization, and Mingo is open about her own faith, "I don't try to force it down anybody's throat, either," she says.

Mingo is a longtime member of Lakes Area Vineyard Church in Detroit Lakes. She attended school in Detroit Lakes, and then later in Perham, graduating from Perham High School in 2010. She lives and works at the ranch with her boyfriend, Alex Vanegas, and their 8-month-old daughter, and she says her parents, Maryann and Cory Mingo, are also an important part of the operation.

"I enjoy it," she says of the ranch. "So much, that even when I'm scooping poop or doing chores, I enjoy it. It's relaxing to me. This is what I've always wanted... I love God and I love what I'm doing, so it feels right."

IF YOU GO

WHAT: Firefly Fields Youth Ranch FUNdraiser

WHEN: Sunday, June 2

WHERE: At the ranch, at 35771 County Highway 36, Vergas, MN 56587

DETAILS: Take a tour of Firefly Fields Youth Ranch and learn more about it. The ranch will be offering 30-minute photo sessions around the ranch, with different backdrops. Get individual or family pictures taken next to a cross, with horses, hay bales, flowers and more. The cost per session is $50, with all proceeds going toward the ranch's fencing project. Time slots will be from 9:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., and again from 3-7 p.m. Message the ranch to reserve a slot.

CONTACT INFO: To learn more about the ranch, volunteer, or make a donation, visit the Firefly Fields Youth Ranch Facebook page or the website at fireflyfieldsranch.wixsite.com, or call 218-850-1477 or email fireflyfieldsyouthranch@gmail.com.