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Sister Sustains Ben's Legacy

June 19, 2011

By J. Blake Ragsdale

It was a brisk, fall Saturday with plans of exciting college football for North Carolina State University student Andi Hughes. Andi’s sole focus was to join her friends for the game against the University of Miami and root for her beloved Wolfpack.

Andi never made it to the game on October 23, 2004. Instead, a phone call sent the 21-year-old rushing to the police station. This was the day when Andi’s life would completely change.

“My mom had been arrested for drunk driving,” Andi divulges. “I was called to the station to pick up my 14-year-old brother Ben who was riding with her.”

Andi’s childhood was turbulent because of her mother’s long history of alcohol abuse. Andi’s faith in God sustained her during those difficult years. She was able to remove herself from the turmoil when she left for college in 2001.

With her mother’s arrest, it was apparent to Andi that Ben was at risk. She made a bold choice – Andi would seek to become Ben’s legal custodian.

“I knew what Ben was going through,” Andi explains. “I talked with the Department of Social Services and ultimately received custody of Ben. They don’t typically give custody of a 14-year-old to a 21-year-old. That was God.”

Ben lived with Andi for a short time. Andi loved her brother, but knew she could not provide everything the teenager needed. A friend shared that Oak Ranch, a residential ranch for at-risk boys in Sanford, might be a good option for Ben.

“Because I was his older sister, and not his mom, it was important for Ben to be involved in the decision-making process,” Andi says. “And he made the choice to go to Oak Ranch.”

For the next two years, Oak Ranch in Sanford provided a safe, Christian home for Ben.

“Ben came into his own as a young man at Oak Ranch,” Andi says. “He learned about God’s grace and mercy. And he learned how to follow after the Lord.”

Andi attended family counseling sessions at Oak Ranch with her brother. On weekends, she would bring Ben back to Raleigh where they were involved with Andi’s church – Grace Community Church.

“Oak Ranch gave me and Ben more than I could ever have expected . . .exceedingly, abundantly above,” she says. “Ben’s goals there were to graduate high school and be accepted to college. He was convinced he would attend North Carolina State and then go into the Air Force.”

But on Friday, October 27, 2006, Andi received another fateful phone call while attending a church leadership retreat.

Andi was told Ben and her 22-year-old sister Meg, who also lived in Raleigh, had been killed in an accident involving a drunk driver. With Andi away, Meg and her friend Jennifer had picked up Ben from Oak Ranch for the weekend. Meg’s vehicle was violently struck during the drive home – none of the three survived.

“There were days I did not want to get out of bed,” Andi remembers. “I was planning on Ben and Meg being there for my college graduation. One day, when I got married, Ben was going to walk me down the aisle.”

Andi put her life on hold while she grieved. Counseling and her church’s caring support helped Andi through the dark times. After the one-year anniversary of the accident, Andi determined to move forward.

“I needed that year for God to heal me from many things,” she explains. “My entire life I had been in survival mode with my mom’s alcohol, raising a 14-year-old, and living on my own. God stopped me so I could heal.”

Andi now asked herself a question: “What would Ben and Meg want me to do?”

The answer, Andi says, would inevitably involve Oak Ranch which became a part of Baptist Children’s Homes statewide services in 2007. “I love Oak Ranch, and it was time to give back.”

In fall 2008, Andi and college students from Grace Community Church made their first trip to Oak Ranch. The group helped with a number of work projects. Andi made a special connection with houseparents David and Myra Vandy.

“Mr. David led a devotion about healing and how Oak Ranch is just as much about home for me as it was for Ben,” Andi says. “I respond to the Vandys like parents. I respect them for what they do. They are the houseparents the Oak Ranch kids need.”

Today, Oak Ranch serves girls as well as boys. Andi was thrilled to learn that young ladies could receive the same opportunities as Ben.

“I love that I can come here and talk to the girls,” Andi says. “I have sat in the back of the cottage with some of them and cried and prayed about what was going on in their lives.” Andi and her volunteer group return each year. Their fourth trip is planned for this fall.

“One thing we can do is come down and help – every little bit helps,” Andi explains. “Oak Ranch is ministry. It’s life-changing. I saw what it did in Ben’s life. There’s nothing more gratifying than being a part of making that happen in the life of every child who lives here.”