Capability Ranch – An activities center for families with special needs

Capability Ranch offers a perfect combination of nature, comfort and serenity. Located in rural Ramona, this newly opened activities and events center welcomes youth and young adults with developmental delays to explore their creative talents and abilities. Offering activities on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons, the ranch invites parents and caregivers to participate or relax nearby on the property. Activities and events, often seasonally themed, include arts and crafts, music, baking, animal encounters and off-site outings such as local hikes or orange picking at a nearby farm.

Although this unique venue opened its doors in January, the center’s inception goes back nearly two decades. Co-founder and president, Nicola Bridges, has a 19-year-old autistic son, Owen, and understands that appropriate programs are scarce. “Since Owen’s diagnosis, I’ve always wanted to start a program for kids with special needs, particularly autism,” Bridges says.

Back in her early parenting days, Bridges was entrenched in a successful—though intensive—career in publishing and media. She was simultaneously raising Owen and his older brother Jack, often traveling for work, and focused on meeting the demands of both worlds.

One fateful night in 2013, everything shifted. Bridges’ eldest son Jack was brutally assaulted while attending college and suffered a life-threatening traumatic brain injury. Given a slim chance of survival, Jack underwent surgery. Doctors, friends and family were amazed as he recovered, rehabilitated, returned to classes and rejoined life over the next year and a half.

The experience caused Bridges and her husband Tony Oxley to question their priorities and current life circumstances. At the time, both were working as executive professionals. Bridges was constantly flying between San Diego, Atlanta and New York while also supporting Jack’s east coast recovery and Owen’s general care. “I attempted to go to the office one day and I couldn’t drive, I was so jittery,” she explains. Her boss asked her why she was still working this job, given everything going on with her family. It was a good question.

Over the next couple of weeks, she and Oxley asked themselves what they wanted out of life going forward. It became clear that they had to make a big change and find something more fulfilling. “We decided we wanted a ranch with space and serenity,” Bridges says. She quit her job, took some time off, and then started looking for a ranch in rural North County.

capabilityranch2Though in need of some loving care, the property’s 10 acres—formerly the site of the Wildlife Research Institute—was exactly what they’d envisioned. They invested their savings and throughout the summer of 2014, they cleaned and renovated, established a business plan, and prepared to launch Capability Ranch.

During this time, Jack continued to rehabilitate back east. Although he suffered several setbacks in the form of seizures, Bridges says that Jack was resilient and always focused on the positive. Instead of asking, “How are you?” Jack would ask people, “What’s good?” Once he was cleared for travel, Jack visited San Diego to explore the ranch and see his family, and then returned to school.

In early November 2014, just before the scheduled opening of Capability Ranch, Bridges and Oxley flew to Baltimore to attend Jack’s fraternity fundraiser and spend a long weekend with him.

Upon landing, they received the tragic news that Jack had died in his sleep as a result of a final seizure from his brain injuries. Understandably, Jack’s death was devastating to the family, delaying the opening of Capability Ranch; but grief-stricken Bridges was determined to move forward. “There’s always a gift in the middle of tragedy and you have to look for [it],” she says. “In this case, it was the notion of Capability Ranch and making it real—taking whatever is ‘good’ and taking it to heart.”

caparanch3With the support of friends, family and the community, Capability Ranch opened earlier this year and offers a respite for young people with special needs. Throughout the property’s “Jack Shack” Activity Barn are photos of Jack smiling; his arms remain casually draped around the shoulders of friends and family, forever welcoming. The inspiration of Jack’s life, and the generosity of his loving family, remind us all of exactly what’s good.

Capability Ranch, a nonprofit organization, is 100 percent privately funded. Financial donations, activity supply donations and volunteers are welcome. To donate, visit

Support Capability Ranch by staying at their Guest House! Find information and reviews at

Find more activities and resources for families with special needs at

Lisa Pawlak is an Encinitas resident and mother of two boys. She is a frequent contributor to San Diego Family Magazine.