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By August Miller, Deseret News

YFZ RANCH, Texas — It was obvious that Zachary had had enough of prying eyes, nosy news people, snapping cameras and inquisitive strangers.

"They don't need to see what I look like!" the 9-year-old son of Edson Jessop and Zavenda Young said defiantly as his parents consented to an interview Tuesday with the Deseret News at the YFZ Ranch.

Edson and Zavenda took their son's outburst in stride, knowing he was tired from an all-night drive from the Waco shelter in which he had been housed. Ephraim, 7, and Russell, 5, followed their big brother's lead, covering their faces with both hands and refusing to answer nearly every question posed to them.

"I want to throw rocks at your camera!" Zachary said, as he looked up briefly at his little brothers who were nodding their heads in agreement. "Just break it!"

The boys, said their mother, have been through a lot over the past two months and their anger is understandable.

"They've had a rough go of it," she said, coaxing the two oldest ones to sit by her.

Edson tried to console the boys, wrapping an arm around Russell's stooped shoulders, saying, "We don't want to be mad, boys."

The interview took place on the grass in front of the YFZ school building on a searing hot Texas afternoon. It was 103 degrees, but cool enough in the shade. The boys, however, weren't ready to open up, and their eyes betrayed an inner fear of having another unknown grown-up asking personal questions.

It's been a long two months since Texas authorities raided the YFZ Ranch and took every child from the 1,700-acre, self-sustaining community on allegations of abuse and neglect. After being initially housed in large make-shift shelters, the children were sent throughout Texas to foster care facilities about six weeks ago.

"Zachary was the oldest boy out of 46 children at the shelter," his father said. "He looked after all of them. If he didn't understand something, he asked questions until he did understand it, and then he explained it to the young ones."

It was a heavy burden, but Zachary, said his mother, has always been a strong boy who knew who he was and where he needed to be. And that place was home, she said.

"We do want to thank the people who took care of our children. There were some special people," Zavenda said. "There were people who let us know they prayed for us and wanted our family to be together."

The boys' sister, 3-year-old Anne, was so excited to be back in her mother's arms that she wouldn't let go once she was in them. At a press conference held just outside of the ranch gates, Anne clung to her mother, tucking her face into Zavenda's neck.

Back on the ranch grounds, however, Anne's exuberance and joy at being home erupted. A purple petunia met Anne's matching lavender dress as she plucked it and held it near her heart.

"See!" Anne giggled, "Mother, see my flower!"

Zavenda's smile matched her daughter's as she reached out to snatch another hug from her blond-haired child.

"She is so happy here," Zavenda said, as Anne ran off, teasing her father by peeking out from between the steps leading to the schoolhouse door. "She didn't like the shelter. When we went to visit her it would take an hour and a half to get her to talk to us. We would play together and then she would realize that our time was almost up. Then she just crawled back into her shell and wouldn't talk."

But there were many acts of kindness shown to his family during their long ordeal, Edson said.

"It's amazing. No matter how many times we drove around the state we found people who were kind to us," he said. "I bought a tank of gas the other day and a gentleman took my money and said, 'God bless you.' I think it's done us a lot of good to have people come here on the ranch and see how we live. To see we have individual homes and to feel the humanity here."

Jessop, a former city councilman and vice mayor of Colorado City, Ariz., said he helped build the YFZ community and hopes to stay there.

"It's a piece of me, if you know what I mean," he said, looking around. "We didn't build this community to walk away from it."


E-mail: nperkins@desnews.com