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WE Charity's big ranch in Arizona acquired two horses, Smokey and Lakita's Moon. One died and the other one vanished.

Courtesy of Susan Ballard/Courtesy of Susan Ballard

When officials at WE Charity acquired a pair of rare Nokota horses in 2010, they seemed like perfect additions to the organization’s 36-acre ranch in southern Arizona.

The horses – Lakita’s Moon and Smokey – were an instant hit with visitors to WE’s Windsong Peace and Leadership Center, which included a 6,000-square-foot main house and two other residences.

But within a few years Lakita’s Moon was dead, Smokey had vanished, and the centre was run down and draining cash. WE closed it in 2018 and sold it a year later for less than half its assessed value.

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The tale of Windsong has been a little-known chapter in the WE story. But the episode sheds new light on how WE’s rapid expansion led to financial pressure and, at times, haphazard disclosure. Years after they were last seen on the ranch, Lakita’s Moon and Smokey are still listed as assets on the charity’s financial filings.

Windsong was built in 1990 and for years was the luxurious home of Virginia and Shaw Benderly, a philanthropic couple from New York who owned a bus company. Ms. Benderly met Craig Kielburger in 1995 at a conference in California and immediately became enamoured with the young crusader. At the time, Mr. Kielburger was making a name for himself as a teenaged activist campaigning against child labour. He eventually created WE Charity with his brother, Marc, and broadened the scope of his activism to include improving health care and education in developing countries.

Ms. Benderly became a life-long WE supporter and a major donor. She was so committed to the organization that she drove to Toronto every year for the charity’s annual meeting and hosted fundraising events at the Arizona ranch. At one point, she offered to donate the estate to the organization, but the board of WE Charity’s U.S. branch balked. According to a source familiar with the discussions, the directors didn’t believe the ranch fit within WE’s objectives and felt it would be too hard to manage. Ms. Benderly kept pressing, and in 2005 WE finally accepted the ranch as a gift.

The property was a challenging proposition. It included the sprawling main house, which had a butler’s pantry, a wine cellar, a sunken marble bathtub and a library. Ms. Benderly played the harp, and parts of the home had custom-made cork floors for sound proofing. There was also an eight-car garage with a bunk house and a 1,300-square-foot gatekeeper’s cottage. While the location had stunning vistas and access to a state park, it was also remote – roughly 100 kilometres south of Tucson.

Windsong Peace and Leadership Center, south of Tucson, Arizona.

Handout

WE quickly transformed it into the Windsong Peace and Leadership Centre and made modifications to accommodate rows of bunkbeds. The charity appointed Erin Blanding as director, and she had big plans to make it a top-flight educational centre. Windsong began running summer camps for children and programs for local schools. Campers paid about US$800 a week and learned about immigration, border issues and the environment. At the end of their stay, they would receive certificates in “Me to We Leadership” or “Me to We Facilitation.” Windsong’s mission, Ms. Blanding noted in a promotional video, was to “guide students to find their passions and how to have an impact on the world.”

As WE expanded globally and attracted more and more corporate sponsors, the Kielburgers created ME to WE Social Enterprises Inc. in 2009. The company specialized in selling WE products and offering excursions to places where WE Charity operated, including Windsong. The Kielburgers have long insisted that at least half the company’s profits went to WE Charity.

The division between the business and the charity sometimes became murky, including at Windsong. For example, while ME to WE ran the centre and included it among the company’s travel packages, property records show it was owned by WE Charity. Most of Windsong’s assets also appeared on the financial statements of WE Charity U.S., including the buildings, the horses, four vehicles and a signature machine.

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A few years after Windsong opened, Susan Ballard decided it would be a good place to donate Lakita’s Moon and Smokey, which she’d bought in North Dakota. Ms. Ballard lives on the Blue Moon Ranch with her husband, Brian, about 140 kilometres east of Windsong. She has a keen interest in Wild West folklore and has written half a dozen books about life on the frontier, including a trilogy of novels based on the exploits of Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp, the lawmen involved in the shootout at the O.K. Corral in 1881.

Ms. Ballard loves horses and took a particular liking to Lakita’s Moon and Smokey, with their illustrious pedigree. Like all Nokotas, they were descendants of a herd owned by Chief Sitting Bull, who united the Sioux against white settlers in the 1870s.

But shortly after the Ballards bought the pair – for about US$3,000 each – Ms. Ballard broke both her hips and couldn’t ride any more. A friend told her about Windsong, and Ms. Ballard offered to donate the horses, which were both about four years old at the time. “We just wanted to find a good home for them, and this place, somebody recommended it, and it sounded like a nice place for the horses to go,” she recalled in an interview.

She was told a couple of years later by WE that Lakita’s Moon had died from a pre-existing condition. WE also asked if she would take back Smokey. “They said they were closing down and they had to get rid of everybody,” Ms. Ballard said. She couldn’t take back the horse but told WE she had a friend who was interested in buying Smokey, but WE never got back to her.

By 2015 Windsong was in financial trouble. While the camps attracted as many as 50 students at a time, the cost of running the centre had become onerous. “They were trying to close it for years, but it was sort of [Ms. Blanding’s] baby and she kept it running,” recalled Justin Bramhall, Windsong’s former property manager. He’d been hired in May, 2015, and was promised an annual budget of US$100,000 to fix up the property and install a host of environmentally friendly services such as rain-water harvesting, composting toilets and solar heating for the water supply. But the money never materialized, and Mr. Bramhall said the pressure from WE’s head office in Toronto mounted.

He did his best to maintain the ranch and keep up the small collection of chickens and goats and some 30 sheep. Smokey was gone before he arrived, but Marc Kielburger directed Windsong to get another horse. “Marc wanted a horse there for marketing purposes, so they scrambled to get Poco from a local horse sanctuary place,” Mr. Bramhall said, explaining that Mr. Kielburger felt that a horse would attract campers. “After two years I ended up giving Poco back to that horse sanctuary.”

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Ms. Blanding, who was unavailable for comment, left Windsong in 2017 for a posting with WE in Toronto. (She has since left the organization.) By then the charity had opened its 43,000-square-foot Global Learning Center in the city’s downtown – and Windsong’s days were numbered.

In February, 2018, WE announced that Windsong would close that summer. “As WE continues to learn and grow, we have reached a point in our journey where we were faced with a difficult decision to make,” the charity said in a statement at the time.

“They told us their focus was gearing them in other directions,” Mr. Bramhall said. “They had just opened the WE Global Learning Center and they were financially strapped as a result of that and just didn’t see Windsong fitting into their objectives. My theory is they didn’t want it from the get-go.”

In a statement, WE said it couldn’t provide details about the ranch. “As you mentioned, our centre in Arizona was closed in 2018 and no one involved with the purchase is still with the organization,” the charity said. “Confirming further details has been challenging as the staff involved in the centre left the organization after it closed. We believe one horse passed and one horse was provided to a local not-for-profit animal care organization.”

Jean Miller, a local real estate agent, was hired in April, 2018, to find a buyer for Windsong and immediately ran into problems. The buildings required extensive repairs, and the remodelling WE had done to accommodate campers had been so shoddy that there were exposed pipes in a makeshift bathroom. Ms. Miller estimated that roof work alone would cost US$25,000 and said some of the walls had been infested with termites. “It was a mess. It was just a difficult, difficult, difficult thing to sell,” she recalled.

County officials had appraised the house at as much as US$1.3-million, according to property records, but Ms. Miller initially listed it at US$749,000. It sat on the market for a year before it was finally bought in October, 2019, by Robin Stevens and her husband, Morgan Guynes, the half-brother of actress Demi Moore. The couple paid US$506,000. “Unfortunately, [WE] did not upkeep the property and it was, is, very run down,” Ms. Stevens said in an e-mail. “It’s sad because the original owners made this place beautiful. We are hoping to bring it back to the beautiful place it once was.”

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