By Carmen Brown | Photos by Lantern Vision & Contributed
Shelby County-based non-profit On River Time helps abused children find healing on the water, beginning by teaching the truth about who God says they are.
As a child, Steve Davis suffered nightmares that lasted for years, after having endured multiple occurrences of sexual abuse by his aunt over a span of two-to-three years.
“As a survivor of sexual abuse, you live with fear, guilt and shame,” Steve says. “You carry those around with you for a long time.”
For a long time, he never told anyone. He once tried to tell his parents, but when he thought he had mustered the strength, his feet wouldn’t move. The nightmares stopped when he was about 11, and until he was 27, the horror of his experience became a suppressed memory.
Steve’s breakthrough happened when, at age 29, he decided to see a therapist for an unrelated reason. After talking about the other subject for most of the session, Steve says his counselor was able to discern that there was another deeper underlying issue that he was not talking about.
“Toward the end of the first session, she looked me in the eye and said, “‘Tell me what happened to you.’”
Steve fell to the floor, sobbing. This was the beginning of his road to healing.
“After I graduated from therapy, my counselor told me that I needed to tell my parents,” Steve explains. “So I went home, and I told my mom and dad.”
Not long after finishing therapy, Steve was invited to go fly fishing with some friends in Northern Canada.
“You get to be completely alone with your thoughts,” Steve says. “You can’t worry about what’s behind you or what’s ahead of you. You have to be in the moment. There’s healing on the river.”
Steve’s nightmares are now far behind him, and he now offers this same avenue for healing through On River Time, a nonprofit he founded 11 years ago for abused and neglected children.
Selected as the 2021 Charity of the Year by the PGA TOUR Champions, On River Time provides kids ages 12-to-18 an all-expense-paid trip to The Lodge at Palisades Creek in Irwin, Idaho. It includes two days of fly fishing on the Snake River, whitewater rafting and hiking in the Grand Teton National Park in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
Children from group homes around the region are selected by their children’s home directors based on factors including good behavior and good grades. The children are then matched up with mentors who have also been through the program.
According to its website, On River Time offers the four “protective factors” that help a child move forward from trauma: one, resilience and confidence; two, support; three, connections; and four, allowing children to express feelings.
“There has been a lot of research about the healing effects of water on the mind,” Steve says. “The motion of casting a fly rod can be therapeutic.”
Steve says he had visited the Lodge at Palisades about 22 years ago and had befriended owner Marshall Geller. Having discovered the healing effects of being on the water, Steve eventually went to Big Oak Ranch and talked to founder John Croyle about his idea–taking some of the kids on a “trip of a lifetime.”
In 2012, a few boys from Big Oak Ranch went on the first official On River Time trip. In 2015, children from Still Creek Ranch in Texas went. In 2019, the organization invited Homes of Hope and Palmer Home for Children, which is based in Mississippi.
“Many of these kids grew up being told to sit down and shut up,” Steve says. “Now they get to talk about what their day was like and the fish they caught.”
Wendy Garner left a 20-year career in news broadcasting and was working independently when she got the call that On River Time was looking for an executive director.
“At first, I declined because I didn’t feel qualified. That’s not my background,” she says. “But he gave me a copy of his book and said, ‘Think about it.’ I was soon struck with the realization that there was a lot I could bring to the table. I had taught Sunday school for teenagers, and I have two boys myself. I felt God was preparing my steps.”
After reading Steve’s story and learning about the difference it was making in children’s lives, she was “hooked.”
“A great majority of the kids have never left their state or even been on a plane,” Wendy says. “We like to say it gives them a new environment with a new perspective.”
Wendy says in addition to fly fishing, staying in beautiful cabins and daily devotionals, the children do what they call “throwing your fears into the fire,” where each child writes down a fear on a sheet of paper, and they go around in a circle and, if they choose, talk about what they wrote down. Then they throw the paper into the fire.
“So much of it is letting them know they are loved, they are a child of God and God has a plan for their lives,” Wendy says. “It’s overwhelming to see how the Lord is working in their lives.”
When Covid hit in 2020 and the kids weren’t able to go to camp, the SOAR (Success, Opportunity, Attitude and Resilience) program was established for students in the children’s homes who had graduated.
With the help of Wendy, Steve and Executive Assistant Beth Plummer, the kids receive assistance with college and job preparation. Since 2018, On River Time has been able to provide more than 30 scholarships since 2018 to graduating seniors.
Looking back, Steve says he had no idea On River Time would become what it is today.
“It took me 40 years to find my purpose,” Steve says. “So much good can come from your pain if you will allow it.”
Steve still attends therapy every month, and he encourages anyone who has been traumatized to find a qualified professional to begin healing. He has long since forgiven his aunt, who passed away years ago, and the importance of forgiveness is a subject he addresses with the kids.
Steve recounted his experiences in his 2013 book, “Picking Butter Beans.” A fictional story based on his life, the title is a metaphor that refers to looking for the good in people.
“Growing up in East Texas, I hated picking butter beans,” he says. “Sometimes you would have to dig deep to find the good ones.”
So far, at least 200 children have been helped through the program. Fifty children and their chaperones will be taking part this year at the end of May.
They will hike the Tetons. They will see eagles flying over snow-capped mountains. They may see a moose for the first time or maybe a grizzly bear with her cubs. They will get their binoculars out and look for buffalo. They will throw their fears into the fire.
And, with time, they will heed the message Steve learned many years ago. It wasn’t your fault.
For more information about On River Time, visit onrivertime.org or call 205-382-4568. To report suspected abuse or neglect of a child, call 1-800-4-A-Child.
“When I went to On River Time for the first time, the walls that stopped me from sharing my innermost feelings began to fall apart. By the end of my second trip, those walls that kept me from sharing any emotion were completely torn down. Me being able to share my emotions will help me be a better husband and father to my children, so they don’t have to feel as if they can’t express their feelings.”
– Prince, Still Creek Ranch
“This trip has never failed to soften my heart. My eyes have definitely been opened about living in the moment and not being anxious about the future. The memories from On River Time camp will live in my heart forever. My faith has grown and strengthened. I am forever grateful.”
-Ann Grace, Palmer Home
“The purpose of the trip is to create an environment that offers the opportunity to speak life into children who for so long received the opposite. Our children experience so much blessing at Big Oak Ranch, but sometimes in life we need a change of scenery to change our perspective. On River Time provides just that!”
-Brodie Croyle, Executive Director of Big Oak Ranch