Mike & Nikki Kull – Celebrating 50 years of service, interviewed by Gary White
Meet Mike & Nikki Kull
How many young married couples, with bachelor’s degrees in each of their pockets, a 5-month-old child, and opportunities galore would purposely choose to come to a rather desolate stretch of land, in the Middle Rio Grande Valley, and move into a house where they would immediately be responsible for 12 children, under age 12 (and their own, 5-month-old)?
Not many that don’t either have some sort of self-loathing personality issues or have a strong faith that leads them to this calling and a desire to improve the lives of “the least of these.” Fortunately for The Ranches, it was the latter when Mike and Nikki Kull took up residence and employment at what was then, New Mexico Boys Ranch. 50 years later as they retire from service to what is now, New Mexico Boys and Girls Ranches, Inc., or more commonly, The Ranches, I had an opportunity to interview them about their work lives, well spent.
In December of 1970, Mike and Nikki, both graduates of Eastern New Mexico University, arrived at Boys Ranch to what they describe as a very stark and desolate outcropping of a few buildings and 56 child residents. Mike said there was an almost dismal appearance and feeling. When they entered their new home, Nikki said she asked Mike, “Are we at the end of the world?” He didn’t answer. In their new home, they found 12 new faces to care for, a broken couch, broken hide-a-bed, and black floor tile, broken and fractured beneath them, and a 10-year-old riding his bike in the living room. To say it was a discouraging moment, would have been a gross understatement. But, as they later recalled, it was what they pledged to do, and the adventure was on.
They got about the business of learning how to care for children, and fixing up the place. Mike traveled the state meeting donors to help keep The Ranch financially afloat. When Mike would travel, Nikki remained behind to care for a house full of children.
This was in a home with a common bathroom and common shower and very cramped spaces. Mike and Nikki had their own quarters, ill-arranged and lacking in good heating and cooling systems. There were few buildings and a converted WWII Quonset hut which served up to 90 meals three times a day. Mike described the buildings as having “a temporariness” to them. He decided early on that they needed to improve the facilities and grounds. So he set about planting trees, landscaping, raising funds for continued growth and replacement of facilities.
Mike (privately, and without telling Nikki) made a personal commitment to stay for 10 years. Meanwhile, Nikki (privately, and without telling Mike) made the commitment to stay 2 years. Obviously, as we recognize their 50 years of continuous service, those pledges where fairly short-sighted and aren’t we fortunate.
After about two and a half years, Mike became Superintendent. Mike’s challenge to fund raise intensified as he traveled the state, encouraging donors to support improving facilities.
Meanwhile, Nikki continued her care of children seemingly night and day. This was when there was an expectation for women to be fall in line… Nikki was not a real conformist so she recalls a lot of her early years at the Ranch being fairly contentious as she wouldn’t always “fall in line.” In 1973, they added to their own household with the arrival of their son Heath. Now they had the challenge to raise two of their own children while caring for many, many others.
Over their 50 years of service, they ran the organization from the office. Due to Mike’s firm belief that children should not suffer in times of economic downturns, he established the New Mexico Boys and Girls Ranch Foundation. This was to provide endowment funds that often provided the needed resources when tough financial times hit. Donors throughout the state soon petitioned The Ranches to place facilities in their areas. Eventually, with lots of donor support, The Ranches opened Girls Ranch in Lamy, Families for Children in Albuquerque (to provide private foster care), Hart Youth Ranch in Melrose, The New Mexico Family Connection (to provide counseling services to the children and their families), Pippin Youth Ranch in Clovis, and Mountain Vista Ranch in Albuquerque and these programs expanded their services throughout the state.
For many years each of these programs served-well the youth and families of New Mexico. Mike was very proud of responding to this challenge. Although, he was equally saddened when state and national economy eventually closed most of these services.
I then queried them about the hardest time for each of them at The Ranch?
Mike responded that closing down these programs left him feeling like he had let down the people that had supported their creation. When asked, Nikki’s reply to the same question was the change in attitude by people not understanding what a vital and quality role The Ranches plays for some children and families and the amount of over-regulation which occurred from the 80’s through the first part of this century.
The Ranches serves children and families that are seeking help and don’t want to surrender their children to the state while simultaneously also serving many children in state custody who have grown weary of the foster care system. For Nikki, dealing with this has been very discouraging; but, in spite of the challenge, they would make the same choice.
I then asked Mike to share the most hopeful time he experienced, at The Ranch?
Mike shared that once, in their early years, funds were critically low, and they could not cover payroll. Mike said he went to the Lord in prayer, and he made a deal. If God would meet this need, he would remain fully committed to the success of The Ranches. So, Mike took a leap of faith and handed out paychecks knowing there were inadequate funds to cover them…and then he prayed. The very next morning, a generous donor unexpectedly met that need with funds that covered all of those paychecks. Since that time Mike has been happy to keep his deal.
I then asked Nikki about any regrets in her affiliation with The Ranches?
No misgivings about what we chose. I do regret the pain our own children endured while watching their parents care for other peoples’ children.
I then asked Nikki what was the most rewarding time in her Ranch career?
She smiled and said, seeing Heath and Lani move up through the organization to become its’ leadership and especially what good parents they are to their three girls. Growing up at the Ranch was difficult for her kids, and Heath received a lot of retaliation from residents and staff. She said to see him now, makes her most proud and that he is amazing to watch when he interacts with the children at The Ranch. But, “he [Heath] and we’ve taken a lot of flak over nepotism,through our 50 years of service.” But she went on to explain that having people you could trust and rely on was critical and all too often we’ve had staff just drive off and leave the remaining staff in the lurch to care for children. She loved watching Heath’s influence on kids. She loved seeing them succeed when everyone else had given up on them.
“If you have a kid you don’t know what to do with, call me.” Mike quickly agreed and added, that, “we came out of a totally different culture; growing up [Mike] at the Baptist Children’s Home in Portales, reputation was very important.” He said, “I always worried about people’s perception, and mostly the older people who were our primary donors, but we weren’t always sensitive to how our children perceived this.” I reached a point that I knew, without question, that God was with us, and trusted in God’s promise “ I will be a Father to the Fatherless.” My deal was not to worry about hours or vacations or raises, but we will do what it is He wants us to do. Many of those there did not have the personal reassurance that he had so Mike and Nikki turned to those whom they could trust, their own family.
How many children do you guess you have encountered?
Mike and Nikki have helped care for almost 1700 children. After a few years living on the Ranch they moved to Belen and later Albuquerque. While still working full-time for The Ranches, they fostered 13 children in their own home, (not all at once).
I then asked what their wish would be for the future of The Ranches?
Nikki reflected on the prayer of Jabez, (from 1Chronicles 4:10): “And Jabez called on the God of Israel, saying, Oh that You would bless me indeed, and enlarge my territory, and that Your hand would be with me, and that You would keep me from evil, that I may not cause pain! So God granted him what he requested.”
Nikki went on to say that her hope is that, “The Ranch will be better and stronger with Heath and Lani in the leadership positions.” Mike then joined the discussion with his hopes and confidence in the future of The Ranches in that under Heath’s leadership, there has been a refocusing on the primary mission and he believes in a very positive future for The Ranches.
How would you suggest the people of New Mexico help The Ranches?
If people wanted to honor them, they should continue to support the ongoing, day-to-day operations of The Ranches. Helping out with the day-to-day operations, especially when the economy is impacted by the ongoing health situation in our country. Together they asked for people to remember The Ranches in their prayers and when possible, with their contributions.
Mike and Nikki will continue their support, while trying to figure out what retired life after 50 years of service.
I’ve had the pleasure of working with Mike and Nikki for 12 of their 50 years of service. I send them off with my prayers and best wishes for the next phase of their lives.
This article can be read and re-read in our Spring 2020 Corral.
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