Mom’s We Love (After losing a son to traumatic brain injury, Nicola Bridges opened a ranch for youth with special needs.)

(The following is excerpted from Parade Magazine, May 10, 2015; by Ana Connery)
As golden Southern California sunshine pours through the windows of a barn in the small town of Ramona, a group of kids with special needs is killing it on the dance floor. Giggles ripple through the room as they do the two-step, copying the footwork their dance teacher demonstrates. Standing in the wings, Nicola Bridges, 49, is half smiling, half fighting happy tears video-taping the fun on her smartphone. In January, she and her husband, Tony Oxley, opened Capability Ranch, an activity and events center for youth and young adults with special needs, and line dancing is quickly becoming one of the favorite activities on the roster. Like her 19-year-old son, Owen, who’s grooving to the beat, most of the kids who come to the ranch have neurological developmental delays, including autism spectrum disorder, Down syndrome and brain traumas, but anyone’s welcome to join the fun. Bridges’ first inkling that she was meant for something like this was almost 20 years ago, when she was living in Brooklyn, N.Y., with her first husband and two young sons. Juggling her family and a demanding job was beginning to eat away at her spirit. Owen’s autism diagnosis at the age of 2 complicated things further. As Owen’s autism progressed, bills piled up. Years passed. Her kids grew, and so did her career. Eventually she divorced, remarried and relocated to San Diego. Then came the middle-of-the night phone call every parent dreads. Jack, a sophomore in college, had been assaulted outside a bar near campus and rushed to the hospital with a traumatic brain injury. Jack stunned doctors when within weeks he made enough progress to be transferred to a rehabilitation hospital. When she wasn’t flying back and forth across the country visiting Jack, Bridges was busy working with Owen, who stayed in her husband’s care whenever she left town. “Caring for Own isn’t easy,” says Bridges. “Parents of autistic kids often say that going to work is the easy part.” Eventually, Bridges began to unravel. While she was keeping up appearances, she was completely stressed out. She couldn’t help thinking, ‘we already have brain issues in our family, why not somebody else?’ “It’s a terrible thing to say, but it’s how I felt,” she confesses. Sitting in their suburban backyard, ruminating over Jack’s injuries and all of the challenges before them, the idea for Capability Ranch finally took off. The couple bought the Wildlife Research Institute property, sinking their savings into refurbishing it into a retreat that would accommodate disabled youth, especially those suffering from brain disorders and traumas. Meanwhile,  doctors were pleased enough with Jack’s recovery that he returned to school. Last November (2014) Jack was set to give a speech at his fraternity’s Red Carnation Ball which raised funds for the hospital that had saved his life. On the way there, Bridges and her husband sent Jack a text which went unanswered. By the time their plane landed four messages had been missed. Bridges contacted Jack’s best friend who informed them that Jack had laid down for a nap earlier in the day and died in his sleep. Losing Jack just a couple of months before opening Capability Ranch made the realization of Bridge’s dream bittersweet. Today the barn used for line dancing may be a dance hall, but tomorrow it may morph into an art studio, or perhaps a petting zoo. Whatever happens inside, it’s now known as the Jack Shack Activity Barn in honor of the young man who inspired it. For now Bridges takes things one day at a time, a lesson she learned from watching Jack fight back from his injury. “You know those inspirational quotes about living in the moment that go around social media?” says Bridges. “I’m really doing that now for the first time in my life and it’s because of Jack.” (Visit capabilityranch.org for more information about the nonprofit that relies almost entirely on donations.)