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Jerry Costello

Capability Ranch Tends to Those with Special Needs
July 19, 2015

“Special needs kids,” they call them. They might have Down Syndrome, some of them. They might have neurological development delays, or some kind of brain trauma. They might not even be “kids,” but rather young adults, dealing with the same kinds of problems. But all are welcome here at Capability Ranch, in a corner of southern California, where the activities are geared toward part of the population that doesn’t get all the attention that it should. 

                It’s all the pet project of Nicola Bridges and her husband, Tony Oxley, and how they got from Point A to Point B is the subject of Ana Connery’s article in a recent issue of Parade magazine. It’s quite a story, and if you’d like to know more, read on.

                Capability Ranch is something that Bridges has been pointing toward almost before she knew it. She was wrapped up then in what she now calls the “rat race,” working for a publishing firm and helping to put food on the table for her family—which was important, since her younger son, Owen, had been diagnosed with autism when he was two. He’s now 19, and he’s part of the reason that the ranch came to be.

                Bridges always had a yearning to do something for others, but Owen’s older brother, Jack, was now enrolled at the University of Maryland. As Connery tells the story, Bridges was always on the go: “if she wasn’t with Owen, she was glued to her phone or her computer, or she was on a plane en route to a meeting.”

                Time moved on. Remarried now to Oxley, she moved—still working—to San Diego, but along the way she had an “aha” moment: “If I could start over, I’d be a teacher or a special-education facilitator. It was just a feeling but it stayed with me for years.” Eventually she knew that would be her calling.

                Then tragedy struck. Bridges’ older son, Jack, was viciously attacked outside a college bar, sustained a traumatic brain injury, and underwent risky surgery. He had made an apparent recovery and had been cleared to return to school when, to the shock of all, he died in his sleep. Bridges was devastated.

                Still, she and her husband, who had bought the once-deserted property of the Wildlife Research Institute for what would eventually become their haven for special-needs youngsters, deeded to press on. And Capability Ranch—operating as a nonprofit center relying strictly on outside donations—was born.

                Right now Bridges is taking everything one day at a time. One thing is clear: the main activity center at the ranch is named for her son, Jack, who is never far from her mind. 

                “We’re trying to create programs specifically for those affected by brain disorders,” she says, and that includes events for caregivers too. “Research shows the stress level of these caregivers is akin to soldiers returning from combat,” she adds.

                She’d like to do therapeutic activities with animals for the youngsters, and perhaps introduce them to sustainable farming. Overnight camping trips are a possibility as well.

                But that’s all in the future. For the moment she begins her days with an hour of reflection about Capability Ranch and the future. 

                “You know those inspirational quotes about living in the moment?” she asks. “I’m really doing that now for the first time in my life.”


For a free copy of the Christopher News Note, PERSEVERING THROUGH PAIN AND STRUGGLE, write: The Christophers, 5 Hanover Square, New York, NY 10004; or e-mail: