By Joanne Fowler
May 21, 2007 12:00 PM

On an arid expanse in Elgin, Texas, the young ranch hands are taking a lunch break. Between bites of hot dogs and chips, Kelly Horton, 22, gives boyfriend Sterling Hibbs an affectionate tickle as they chat with pals. “Come here, get over here,” Horton says, teasingly, as Hibbs scoots away, clearly enjoying the attention.

The camaraderie at the table is obvious—and something Judy and Jerry Horton wondered if Kelly would ever experience when doctors told them the newborn in Judy’s arms had Down Syndrome. Initially devastated by the news, Jerry recalls how his feelings shifted dramatically those first weeks. “I quickly went from horror at being the father of a kid with a huge intractable disability,” he says, “to being completely in love with my child.”

And determined to help her find her place in the world. Sending Kelly, who has three older stepsisters, to both special-needs and mainstream schools, the Hortons noticed early on how young people with Down Syndrome would often languish once they reached adulthood, lacking the work and social ties that anchor most people’s lives. So when Kelly was 6, the Hortons—both former college administrators—sold their Austin home, took out a $300,000 loan and bought a hardscrabble piece of land that, over the years, they transformed into Down Home Ranch, a 267-acre spread that since 2001 has housed and employed about a dozen adults with Down Syndrome and other disabilities, like cerebral palsy. (The Hortons’ first step, in 1995, was to launch a summer camp that now serves up to 400 special-needs kids each season.) The residents, ages 19 to 36, who pay a sliding-scale fee for room and board with their government-disability funds, groom horses, maintain greenhouses, shop for groceries and prepare group meals—tasks which earn them about $150 a month in spending money. When they’re not working, they take cooking, fitness and sign-language classes and go on outings to the bowling alley, shopping mall and opera. For Kelly, and other residents, who are welcome to stay as long as they want, there’s no better place to be. “I love this ranch,” Kelly says. “I want to be here a long time.”

For more information on Down Home Ranch go to WWW.DOWNHOMERANCH.ORG