Howard David McIlrath was born in New Castle, Pennsylvania and grew up in the small town of Wilmore, Kentucky, home of Asbury College, now Asbury University. After graduating from Asbury in 1977 with a Bachelor's Degree in History Education, he moved his young family to Ashville, Ohio and began his teaching career at Teays Valley High School. As a visionary, Dave was not content just to have his own classroom, so he prepared for something more. He soon began continuing his education through the University of Dayton, and in 1981, earned a Master's Degree in Educational Administration.

The following year Dave, responded to the desire of several families who wanted a private Christian school in the Columbus area. Dave put his love for teaching and "people" skills to work. Arrangements were made to rent and eventually purchase a former Columbus elementary school building. Under his leadership and vision, Liberty Christian Academy was founded in 1982 and opened its doors the following year with 135 students. Although no longer affiliated with Liberty Christian, his dream is still alive, and 35 years later, it is still operating on the foundation that he laid.

In the years following, Dave was encouraged by Dr. Richard Ross (at that time, Superintendent of Reynoldsburg Public Schools) to start a program for "at risk" teenagers. This alternative program would provide an educational opportunity for troubled teens who did not fit into the normal high school program. This "at risk" program was known as The Eagle's Nest, and in the 10 years that Dave served as the CEO, 800+ teens went through his program learning from the hard work of ranching. They not only learned how to function in society, but they learned how to care for animals and compete in rodeo and other equine events. In doing so, they found purpose and value, and learned how to care for themselves and for others.


In 2011, he felt led to open another program. Wanting to help kids early before they get lost to a system that is failing them, he started Briar Patch Ranch for Kids. This highly successful program is dedicated to the emotional and educational health of children. "Mr Mac" (as the students know him) continues to instill confidence and values by teaching children to work and care for animals, and has always been committed to helping our young people in unorthodox ways - ways that work!

Dave McIlrath is a visionary and a risk taker. If someone says with defeat, "it can't be done", Dave rises to the challenge and determines to figure out a way it "can" be done. As the son of a preacher, who prizes old-fashioned values, he often speaks of God leading him to work with kids, but quickly acknowledges that such an explanation isn't for everyone. With a diverse background that includes everything from being an owner-operator of a semi driving across country, to founding a Christian school, Dave has always had a way to combine a no-nonsense attitude with a love for kids. He has a special gift for working with the kids others give up on - for lifting up those that are down and out. Dave is a devoted father to his now grown son and daughter, and enjoys being "Grandad" as he spends time with his six grandkids!


I tell them “we can’t change where you were in life, but we sure can change your life and where you’re headed”