I recently interviewed Trace Embry, founder and CEO of Shepherd’s Hill Academy and host of nationally-syndicated radio broadcast, License to Parent. His school is a resource devoted to helping teens in crisis get their lives back on track.
What brought you to this specific career path? What happened, exactly?
“Growing up, if you would have told me that I would be the executive director of a residential boarding school for teens in crisis, I would have never believed you. My story starts long before the concept of such an organization. I believed in the 1980s mantra that, ‘He who dies with the most toys wins.’ I was a police officer and an entrepreneur in Chicago. I was doing ‘just fine.
But after my wife and I had three kids, we realized something — we weren’t sure how we were going to raise our kids, what was right and wrong and what’s healthy and not healthy. What point of reference would we have?
I got to seriously thinking about four issues of life that we all have to deal with, whether we like it or not: origin, meaning, morality and destiny. And most importantly, how did I want my kids to understand these things?
I had a police buddy who in one month caught his wife cheating on him, lost his home, filed for bankruptcy and his dad committed suicide — yet, in spite of all this, he was always cheerful when I talked to him. I asked him, ‘What keeps you going?’ And he said, ‘Jesus.’
He invited me to church. We weren’t going to come back, but somehow we did the next week.
As I started researching I realized that science actually backed up scripture, it didn’t contradict it. As my wife Beth and I continued working on our lives, we started to get this crazy feeling that maybe God wanted to use us in full-time ministry. It felt nuts. I was the furthest-removed person from that, especially at that time.
Some may call it coincidence, but we call them miracles — the things that worked out to where, two-and-a-half years after this ‘inkling’ inside of us, we gave away and sold most of our stuff and wound up living in a single-wide trailer by Toccoa Falls, Georgia near the Toccoa Falls College campus. It was 700 miles from home, and we were studying to be new people.
We figured out about halfway through Bible college that we weren’t going home. We were being led to build something, and to do that, we’d need land. So, we packed the kids up and started looking.
The first place we found was the place that eventually became Shepherd’s Hill Academy. We wanted to do something with youth, and we weren’t even sure what it was yet. But God kept opening doors for us.
From that small beginning, we began to build what we have now: a faith-based residential care facility for teens in crisis. We’ve grown to over 60 employees that work at our 200+ acre program.
Today we serve teens by offering a fully-accredited academic program from our state-certified teachers and principal. We have a wilderness component where teens learn ethics, values and skills they need in all aspects of life.
We even have on-site therapists — all with master’s-level certifications, of course — that work with our kids through individual therapy sessions, group therapy sessions, equine therapy sessions and much more. And all because two people decided to step out and follow something one might initially think was crazy!”
Can you share a story in which you needed to rely upon grit to see success? Tell us a story about a time when things were hard when you first started out on your entrepreneurial journey.
“The way we acquired the property for Shepherd’s Hill Academy was kind of crazy, too. It was a beautiful, abandoned old farm with a great view of the mountains. We went back there eventually and went up to the top of the hill and took in the view and had a picnic with our kids. This was where we wanted to ‘set up shop,’ so to speak.
We prayed about it for probably a year-and-a-half, and we kept going back there every month for a couple of years. And then we saw a ‘For Sale By Owner’ sign. We called the number, got the owner to come out and talked to him about actually buying the place.
I told him, ‘I do business on a handshake. My bank accounts are empty, since we used all the money to go to school. Will you take a bad check for $200 to hold it for a week and I’ll get creative?’ He laughed and said, ‘I do business on a handshake, too. I’ll take your check and I won’t cash it till Monday.’
We couldn’t get the money.
He said, ‘How are you going to do this?’ as we walked in to see him. I told him I couldn’t do it. And no one was more disappointed than us. It was our last $200, and we had to figure out how to feed our kids. Then he asked what we were going to do with the property.
‘Something with youth,’ I told him. His demeanor changed, and he said, ‘Tell you what — go to the bank down the road and ask for Jim. He’ll get you a loan.’ I said, ‘Who’s going to give me a loan? I don’t have any money to my name, my wife makes minimum wage, we’re barely feeding our three kids and we live in a single-wide trailer.’
He actually got angry with me. ‘I own that bank,’ he said. ‘Go get the loan.’
So, we got the loan.
I came back and told him everything was settled, and he said, ‘Not without $35,000 down it isn’t.’ And I told him again, ‘You have the last $200 to our name.’ He knew that already. He picked up the phone right in front of me, made a few phone calls and arranged the down payment — right there.
We lived in that place, and it had nothing. It had been torn apart inside. It didn’t have electricity, gas, water or anything of the sort. But we spent a year in it like that.
Bottom line: we wound up with a 60-acre farm for $200 down. The guy who’d bought it was a real estate investor who probably expected us to default on our loan after getting a few things running, and he’d be able to turn around and resell it.
Wouldn’t you know it, money just came out of the woodwork, though …
Our babysitter. My wife’s boss. Random people with kids. We had just enough to close and then buy lunch. And then we roofed houses for seven years in eight different states just to try and make this thing work.
That was just one of thousands of miracles that have happened.”
Where did you find the courage to keep going? Especially when things were hardest …
“I leaned on my wife Beth a lot, as well as my faith. Seeing things work out the way they did no matter how bleak they looked at the time has been huge for me, too.
That builds the courage that you need to really make a difference in the world.”
How are things going today? How did your grit lead you to eventual success?
“As of today, we’ve had over 330 students from virtually every state in the Union and 19 other countries enrolled in our year-long program. They spend a year living in primitive, rustic cabins, building their own community and learning how to create things with their hands.
The environment is completely unplugged and provides a ‘digital detox,’ of sorts. The living environment, when coupled with the academics and therapeutic components, are fully conducive to lasting healing.
Shepherd’s Hill Academy has been a product of grit, challenges, obstacles, faith, hard work and perseverance. Shepherd’s Hill started as a leap of faith. We started small and built slowly. But as we built, the mission became clearer: we wanted to build an academy that would help troubled youth get back on their feet.
We wanted to help young people learn the ethics, values and discipline they need to live an abundant, rewarding life. Shepherd’s Hill Academy provides students with a unique opportunity to learn self-reliance, teamwork and how to discover their purpose.
We’re providing them something that’s hard to find: the chance to get away from the world, get back to nature and step away from negative influences. They are given a chance to learn about cause and effect, science, faith and how to take their success outside of our campus and back home.”
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting out with things? What kind of lesson did you learn from this experience?
“I mentioned that in the very beginning of this interview I was roofing homes in order to make ends meet and keep this vision alive. One day, while working on a roof, around lunchtime, we realized that we were roofing the wrong house! We’d already torn up the roof, so we couldn’t turn back — we had to finish.
About 4:30 or 5:00 pm we finished.
It was a rough roof, and the decking was torn up and rotten, so we had to get the new decking and the roof. I was bemoaning the situation to Beth at lunch and she said, ‘Maybe you’re some little old lady’s angel and she’s getting a new roof?’
As we were leaving, lo and behold an older lady pulls up and she’s crying. She tells me she’d been praying for a new roof and couldn’t afford it. It was amazing.
She took out a cleaning job and insisted on paying us. In fact, she sent us a hundred bucks a month for about a year-and-a-half and wouldn’t take it back. It just about covered the materials.”
What do you think makes your company stand out? Could you share a story about that?
“The biggest thing is our commitment to truth and our faith in God.
First and foremost, my family and I are believers in Christ. We strive each and every day to follow him. Sometimes we fail, but we rely on his grace to cover our shortcomings.
Shepherd’s Hill Academy was built from a Christian perspective. We want our students to have the opportunity — should they desire it, of course — to explore their faith and find out if it’s something they want in their own lives. We want our staff to treat our kids in such a way that the students know beyond a shadow of a doubt that they are safe, protected, cared for and loved.
They matter, regardless of their religion or faith.
You have to be able to look at yourself objectively in order to move forward, to heal and to succeed. We help these kids set the foundation for that.”
Which tips would you recommend to colleagues in your industry to help them not only see similar levels of success, but avoid ‘burnout,’ as well?
“This industry isn’t easy, and you will face innumerable challenges and obstacles, but stay committed to the vision you’ve been given. Don’t waver. Know that your vision has a purpose and find your strength in that.
Sometimes that means not leaning on your own strength or understanding, but on God and people that have gone before you. Learn from others. Surround yourself with strong, wise and like-minded individuals who complement your strengths and take over where you are weak. Follow the facts — not feelings. Do your homework, and don’t be afraid to ask a whole lot of questions.
With Shepherd’s Hill, we knew from the start that we neededto work with youth in some capacity; as time went on, we were able to sharpen that focus and figure out the exact way to accomplish it.
But it all started with a strong vision.”
None of us are able to achieve success without some kind of help along the way. Is there a specific person who helped you get to where you’re at today — somebody for whom you’re extremely grateful?
“Without a doubt my wife, my wife and my wife. The faith Beth has in me and the faith I have in her, everything’s been confirmed between us — especially as we communicate with one another and compare notes. Back that up with an endless series of circumstantial miracles over the yearsand it helped us step out in faith time and time again.
But of course, in addition to her, there are a myriad of other people along the way who have helped us and encouraged us — particularly our staff. Any business, any entity, any ministry is only as good as the people you have working in it.
In life or business, you’re going to get bad apples here and there, and that can spoil people’s perception of everything. We’ve spent a lot of time trying to make sure we have the best staff possible, from accredited teachers to licensed therapists; and, I think we’ve succeeded.
Our staff’s all followed the vision that we set from the start; they’re a huge part of what we do.”
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
“Shepherd’s Hill didn’t open until 2001, but we did a ton of things in the interim. We did equine camps and other things where you could bring the kids around to make an impact on their lives — even if they weren’t staying there for a full year. We were able to see a very tangible, positive impact from that, fortunately.
Today we see the impact of a residential therapeutic program. The difference in a child’s countenance, how they stand, how they sit and if they make eye contact, is just amazing — and honestly, oftentimes, a sizable victory! We are able to see students come into our program, grow and thrive, and leave a changed person with a renewed purpose.
From a therapeutic standpoint, students are given such a wealth of knowledge and tools to take home with them. They learn things like self-regulation, anger management and how to not only deal with, but thrive in spite of the issues or ‘bad cards they’ve been dealt.’
It’s incredible and inspiring, to say the least.
Our students have written letters, come back to visit and even kept in contact with members of our staff to tell us what a difference just one year made on their lives. Things like, ‘I feel like I’ve been given the chance of a lifetime’ and ‘You saved my life’ are things that you just can’t put a price on.
If Shepherd’s Hill Academy can do that for just one student, then it’s all worth it.”
What are five things you wish someone had told you before you started doing what you do today? The more detailed you can be, the more our leaders can learn from you.
“Firstly, how much it was going to hurt. There’s nothing that feels more painful than going out of the way to do everything right, see people’s lives transformed and then hear people say, ‘That guy’s a nut job.’
Next, the people that say these things aren’t the people we’ve helped or the people that know us. Make sure to listen to the right people in everything you do. Any time you’re stepping out into the light and take a risk, you’re going to hear from the naysayers. You have to be able to filter that out.
Also, just how good things can feel at the very same time. When you get phone calls, emails, letters and texts from people all around the world who say things like, ‘You don’t know me, but I know someone who spent a year at your place, and it made an impact on me.’
The fact that most folks see right through it to the truth of things. That mends the hurts, for sure.
And finally, right from the start, we knew what Shepherd’s Hill needed to be for young people. That work has stayed the course. Before I started, I would’ve loved for someone to remind me of the importance of keeping true to my vision for Shepherd’s Hill. Fortunately, I was able to do just that, but it was never easy.”
Undoubtedly, you are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
“A revival of faith, resulting in love and unity in the midst of our diversity.
The bottom line of that faith is to love your neighbor as yourself and to do unto others as you’d have them do unto you — no matter who you are or what you believe in, these concepts are easy to get behind, yet tougher to put into practice.
The logical end of everyone on earth loving their neighbor as themselves and doing unto each other as they’d have them do unto themselves is peace, harmony and love. Doing what you want to do when you want to do it, and ‘if it feels good, do it,’ leads to chaos.
That’s why Shepherd’s Hill Academy exists. We’re devoted to teaching young people this way of life. We’ve found it to be the remedy for healing troubled teens and families. We want to help young people make this a way of life, regardless of their faith or socio-economic status.”
Lastly, how can our readers best connect with you?
“You can reach us — or me, more specifically — at ShepherdsHillAcademy.org,which has all the contact details you need to get in touch.”