KNOXVILLE — The farm at Shangri-La Therapeutic Academy of Riding in South Knoxville seems like it is often quiet, operating at a slower pace as staff members prepare for the facility to open. But today people busily funnel in and out of the small building that sits beside the barn, wearing headsets or Walkie Talkies.

“Those aren’t usually there,” STAR Facilities Manager, John DeVault says, gesturing towards sheets of newspaper that have been taped to the fluorescent lights on the ceiling.

The small room with desks and a peculiar built-in jail cell, that DeVault says was already there when STAR bought the property earlier this year, has been converted into a set for a movie.

“They just filmed a jail scene in here I think,” he says. A week ago a popular television channel arrived at the farm to shoot scenes for a new movie. This is something that seems like it could be a common occurrence on the facility’s sweeping pastures overlooking Fort Loudon Lake.

The farm is not yet functional as a new branch of STAR’s main Lenoir City location. Much of the on-site preparation for the grand opening of the branch is being done by DeVault, a native of Bristol, who works as a youth pastor at Blue Springs Baptist Church as well as taking care of STAR’s property for the past five years.

DeVault sits back in one of the old wooden office chairs littering the room and looks at the floor, recalling details.

“I did an internship at STAR and became friends with the Facilities Manager at that point and then when he left the organization I applied for the job.

John and Stephanie DeVault

John and Stephanie DeVault.

“My grandfather has a farm that I helped on and it was work that I enjoyed doing and, just, came pretty natural and I knew I could handle the job. When I was doing my internship, when I got done with the office tasks I would say ‘hey I’m gonna go help your facilities manager out.’ So we would go mow and put out hay and stuff like that together and what’s interesting is he still helps me out at the farm now.”

DeVault worked on his grandfather’s farm until he left Bristol to attend the University of Tennessee, getting a degree in Child and Family Studies as well as meeting his wife, Stephanie.

“She went to Johnson briefly actually, until her major was dropped. She was majoring in Disability Ministry and I think the guy who had started that decided to retire.”

Stephanie then transferred to the University of Tennessee for Therapeutic Recreation, which is where she met John.

“She always said she never wanted to marry a pastor and then she met me,” he said, smiling “I said ‘by the way I’m a youth pastor’ and she said ‘Oh, great.’ She’s involved with me as far as helping out with the youth ministry and she loves doing it. So she helps me out, she keeps me in line. I’m not organized at all,” he laughed.

Stephanie now works at The Sertoma Center in Knoxville as a recreational therapist leading cooking classes for clients and is expecting the couple’s first child in just a few weeks.

DeVault noted that UT may have been an interesting choice since Youth Ministry was his aim from the time he was in High School.

“I don’t think what I thought youth ministry was then is what it is now but it was something I was always moving towards,” he said “I always tell people, I majored in secular youth ministry – so I learned everything but the scripture that goes along with it.”

It became clear that youth ministry was his calling very quickly.

“I began working as a youth pastor, really while I was at the university at a small church my family actually went to. My grandmother went to the church and called me and went, ‘Hey our youth pastor resigned – we know what you want to do. Would you be interested?’ and I’m like ‘Yeah!’. So I began working there and I got paid, not much, but it was still a good experience.”

He worked at the church, Mouth of Richland Baptist Church in Blaine, TN, for seven years before deciding it was time to move on.

DeVault with part of his youth group.

DeVault with part of his youth group.

“Blue Springs had recently hired a new pastor that I knew,” he said “I met him through another ministry I had been doing at Mouth of Richland.”

DeVault laughed before describing the odd procedure of being hired as the youth pastor at Blue Springs.

“I realized he’s talking to me and asking me questions and I’m like ‘I think this is an interview’ and it turned into an actual interview later on and that’s how I ended up at Blue Springs.”

Despite working at Blue Spring and preparing for a new baby, DeVault explained his interest in continuing work at STAR, which goes beyond caring for the property. STAR offers many different programs in addition to their services for those with disabilities or daily challenges including Changing Strides for at-risk youth and Heroes and Horses for those who have served or are serving in the military.

DeVault painted a picture of the joy and happiness working with animals in this capacity can bring to anyone.

“There’s one rider in particular I can think of who is so determined to ride either by himself or to just get better at riding. We have a horse show in August and that’s what he wants to do, to do well in that horse show. And you see how much he tries, and how much better he’s gotten, and how much people pushed him and he gets that and learns to do it well.

“One of the things you see, many of the parents kind of realize my child may never drive a car on their own. My child is not going to have that ‘typical’ teenage experience. But they come here and they’re child is in charge. They may never be able to drive a car but they can ride that horse around the arena like nobody’s business. You see how much it helps not only the rider but the volunteers, the instructors, the parents, they’re all benefiting.”

DeVault paused then smiled, adding, “Even the facilities manager gets to benefit from seeing the impact this has on people’s lives.”

As movies are made and buildings are prepared, that impact will be seen very soon at the South Knoxville farm, and DeVault will be there to share in it.

The South Knoxville STAR location will be holding an open house on Oct. 20th for the community to come learn more about the facility. To learn more visit their website.

Students at Johnson can earn SALT hours by joining STAR as one of hundreds of volunteers with a minimum one hour a week commitment and hands on experience with the riders and horses.

Students interested in volunteering at STAR can contact Volunteer Coordinator Brittnay Ferrel at or call 865 988-4711.


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