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When new kids arrive at the Ranch, sometimes it can take a little while for them to adjust. They’re in a new home with new people, and our program runs on a steady routine. If they come from tough environments, they’re even more on guard, waiting to see what life will be like here.
Antonio is from a big family—seven kids across a spectrum of ages. He’s used to a little bit of chaos. When he arrived at the Ranch, it didn’t take him long to adjust. On top of that ring of familiarity, it was also summer break. The 2021 school year hadn’t started yet, so the everyday routine in the cottage was a little more relaxed.
No school was just fine with Antonio. He remembers the moment in middle school when school stopped being a priority.
“I just stopped caring,” Antonio remembers. “I stopped doing my work and started failing.”
When his grades plummeted, the one class he cared about—band—was no longer an option. In high school, everything seemed to escalate. Not doing assignments or keeping up with homework turned into skipping school and other bad habits. Antonio’s parents were terrified that his disrespect towards his family would rub off on his siblings.
Just before Antonio came to the Ranch, he received an acoustic guitar, something he had always dreamed of. He faithfully made his way through guitar lessons, finally showing commitment to something. This attention and focus was promising, but not enough to improve his behavior or his grades.
At the Ranch, Antonio adapted quickly. He made friends with his cottage mates and passed the summer learning what life at the Ranch would look like. It wasn’t until school began in the fall that reality hit.
“I had to start trying—I mean really try—to do my schoolwork. I was supposed to fail ninth grade,” Antonio said. “But when I got here, I passed because they let you make up classes.”
The customized curriculum at Donald Ralph Cooke School helped put Antonio back on track. His teachers made sure that Antonio had the tools he needed to improve.
“It’s a smaller learning environment, so it’s easier to stay focused,” he said. “You get more one-on-one time with people that can help you.”
At the Ranch, school is just one aspect of life. Our four pillars—work, study, play and pray—help our boys and girls develop the tools they need to be successful when they return home.
Antonio soon found himself working at the Chapel on campus, helping our Chaplain keep the building clean and run the chapel service.Spending time at Chapel has opened the door for something Antonio truly loves: music. Not only was he able to continue learning how to play the guitar, but he also got the chance to try out other instruments.
“I love instruments. I play the piano, guitar, and I’m learning how to play the electric guitar and acoustic bass.”
Over the last few months, his teachers and cottage parents have seen a change in Antonio. He realized that all of his goals in life are achievable; he just has to work for them.
“I want to go into the Navy,” he said.
“My mother’s father was in the military, and once they started talking about that, it kind of caught my eye. It feels like the right thing to do.”
The local high school has a JROTC program, and Antonio was immediately interested. With his grades steadily improving, joining the program became a real possibility.
“I got really lucky because it’s Navy JROTC,” Antonio said. “So as soon as I start bringing up my grades, they’re going to talk about getting me into the program.”
Antonio has worked hard to focus on school, study for his learner’s permit, and earn the chance to apply for a job in town. But if you ask him how long he’s actually been at the Ranch, he just shrugs his shoulders.
“I stopped counting,” he said simply. “I’m not counting down the days until I have to leave. I’m more than likely going to need help for a while. I’m trying to stay here until I graduate.”
Antonio sees how much everyone wants him to succeed, and now he knows he’s capable of it. His cottage parents, his teachers, the Chaplain—everyone has the same goal: to help our kids get back on track.
“The staff here tells you about their experiences when they were young and what they did and how it’s similar to us,” Antonio said. “So they can help set us on the right path. They’re showing us what we need to do in order to reach our goals.”
Antonio knows he’s gotten lucky. This chance he has at the Ranch is something he plans to develop into a successful future.
“I want to prove to my family that I’m sorry and I’m trying to change.”
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One of the major tenets of our program is that we operate under a family model. Our cottages are run by a mom and pop and the youth in the cottage have a structured, dependable daily schedule. They get up, eat breakfast and go to school. When they get home, they do their chores, work on homework and eat dinner as a family.
By using this traditional family structure, our programs can keep siblings together under one roof. Siblings like Maddie and Jeremiah, who needed a safe place to grow up. They’ve been at the Ranch for five years, and the steady routine is now familiar.
Jeremiah, 14, is all about sports. His favorite is soccer, and he is excited about joining the team at his school this upcoming year.
“Everybody’s encouraging me to,” he said, smiling. “So this year I will.”
Before he came to the Ranch, Jeremiah wasn’t a fan of school and had started to fall behind. Now, his cottage parents and other staff members have found a customized curriculum that encourages Jeremiah to study and learn everything he can.
His sister, 11-year-old Maddie, is athletic like her brother. She recently discovered softball and joined a local team with the other girls in her cottage. A new passion of hers is watching wrestling. Her grandparents are big wrestling fans, and Maddie has plastered her walls with posters of her favorite wrestlers.
“My favorite is John Cena, and my other favorite is Roman Reigns,” she said. “He calls himself the Big Dog.” A grin stretched across her face as she talked about watching wrestling on Friday nights with her grandparents.
Maddie has a lot of love for her family and is extremely grateful to be able to grow up in the same home as her brother. They have been through a lot together, and they watch out for one another. When they arrived at the Ranch, these two siblings had a lot to learn about what life was like in a home. Their cottage parents showed patience and love, and Jeremiah and Maddie were quick to learn.
One of the most important lessons that Jeremiah has carried with him from his cottage parents is the suggestion to “try new things.”
“Ever since I decided to try new things, it was awesome,” Jeremiah said. He’s had the opportunity to do lots of new things at the Ranch, including going to summer camp, trying out for sports and learning to paddleboard.
Maddie has also branched out and discovered a passion for art. She loves to draw and paint, and has participated in the Young Artists program through the Museum of Fine Arts St. Petersburg.
When not playing outside, drawing, or doing homework, Maddie and Jeremiah do their part to help keep their cottage running smooth. Part of their daily routine involves doing a chore around the house.
This helps them learn responsibility and how to take pride in a job. Maddie remembers when her cottage parents first taught her how to load a dishwasher, and now it’s easy. Jeremiah has recently been helping in the kitchen as well.
“I take my turn doing kitchen chores,” he said. “I make sure things that aren’t supposed to be out are put away.”
While some of these tasks and discoveries may seem simple, for some of our youth, it’s a whole new experience. Because of your generosity, boys and girls like Maddie and Jeremiah are able to know what it’s like to grow up in a traditional home with a family that loves them. Every day is a chance to “try new things” without worrying about basic necessities. They just
get to be kids.
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At the Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches, one of the most exciting parts about working with the youth in our care is seeing the tremendous growth that can happen. When boys and girls are introduced to the safe, nurturing environment at the Ranch, it’s often the first time in a long time they can breathe easy.
Bella came to the Ranch already on the defensive. Past experiences had left her suspicious and untrusting of adults. She was adamant that any respect she offered to the people in her life had to be earned.
“When I first got here, I was not a nice person,” Bella remembers. “But my cottage parents were nice people. I respected them, so there was no point in having an attitude anymore.”
After living at the Youth Ranches for over a year, Bella graduated high school and moved into the Polk Sheriff’s Charities Scholarship House. This environment is designed to help youth transition into adulthood while they pursue higher education and find a job. The Scholarship House is similar to the cottage environment Bella came to know at the Ranch, but with much more freedom, and with it, more responsibility.
One big change is the freedom to adopt a pet—if the student can prove that they can take care of it. Bella has two aquariums set up in her bedroom with goldfish, catfish and minnows she caught in the lake. There is also a terrarium with a bearded dragon she has named “Chiefy.”
Her bearded dragon was an unexpected addition; another student couldn’t continue taking care of him, and Bella became his owner. She didn’t take this lightly. Chiefy has become a big part of her life.
She makes sure his tank is clean, he has access to a heat lamp and treats him to his favorite snack: strawberries. Taking on these pets requires a lot of Bella’s time, but she is making sure she creates a good home for them.
Over the last year, Bella has learned a lot about herself. Her passion for fixing and riding her bike has expanded to include maintaining the van that the Scholarship House uses to transport some of the students. Bella has taken it upon herself to keep this van looking like new.
“I can tell you every single thing about that van,” Bella said. “I’ve read the manual twice.”
When she pops open the hood, she expertly points out the location of different fluids and deftly pulls out the dipstick to check the oil level. Everything about the van is familiar to her, and she takes pride in knowing that it meets her standard of excellence.
Before the van, there was the bike. When Bella was a teenager, a Sheriff’s Deputy had seen the old bike she was riding. It was all but falling apart, so he used his own money to buy her a brand-new one.
“I haven’t seen him since,” Bella said. “I haven’t seen him since,” Bella said. “But when I needed a bike, he gave me this one brand-new. It was probably the most important thing I had.”
She customizes every inch of it, making it her own. She’s added a scanning strobe light and Bluetooth speaker to the front and attached a waterproof storage box to the top tube of the frame.
Like the van, she regularly goes over every part of the bike to make sure it’s in top condition.
When she’s not riding her bike or detailing the van, Bella likes to go fishing. She loves to catch the big tilapia running wild in the lake. Every time she pulls one flipping and flopping onto the dock, she scoops it up, kisses it, and reminds it to “Grow big, okay?” before tossing it back into the water.
Since her skills with fixing bikes and learning about van engines have become apparent, Bella has decided to pursue a mechanics certification at a local technical college. She is excited to begin this new phase in her life, and hopes to get a job at a local Ford dealership when she graduates.
While living at the Scholarship House, she is expected to attend school and keep a steady job. This is all a new phase of life for Bella, but her passion and fierce work ethic as well as the support of the staff at the Scholarship House will help her on her journey. This is a unique program that is helping our youth learn valuable independent living skills. It’s because of your support that a young adult like Bella will begin her life with the tools she needs to be successful!
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The boys and girls who attend our summer camp program are often at a very impressionable age. Many have never been away from home before, much less out of their county. They are looking for role models in every area of their lives, and sometimes they come up short. Our goal at summer camp is to provide those positive role models who will have an impact on our campers for years to come!
Our theme at summer camp is “Law Enforcement Officers are Your Friends!” School Resource Deputies from all over the state make time to experience camp alongside our youth. Whether our campers are learning to paddle a canoe for the first time, catch their first fish or just how to make new friends, these deputies are here to help.
At Camp Sorensen, the Pine Cabin campers started out the morning at the canoe lake. The sun was elbowed behind a patch of gray clouds, holding off the summer heat for a few more hours. The boys huddled under a low tent to strap on their life jackets. They whispered and chatted among themselves, occasionally glancing over at the two deputies waiting on the edge of the lake.
Finally, one of the boys got up his nerve and walked over to Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Deputy Colby. The camper’s eyes darted around as he approached, and he was gripping the straps of his life vest tightly. Deputy Colby leaned forward as the young boy asked his question.
“Is putting on a life jacket like putting on a bulletproof vest?” the boy asked. Deputy Colby thought about it for a moment.
“You know, it’s actually a lot like that!” he said.
The boy’s face brightened. Satisfied with this answer, he reunited with the other boys and shared his findings. After this icebreaker, the boys began to swarm around the edge of the lake, talking with the deputies and asking for help as they loaded up two to a canoe. The deputies became a seamless part of this group of curious, excited young boys.
They answered questions, gave advice on proper canoe paddle technique, and even got out on the lake along with the campers. On the other side of the camp, the Magnolia Cabin campers gathered around their group leader for Group Building. This series of games helps the cabin mates learn to communicate and work together as a team. The first task was the Frankenstein Walk.
Three girls stepped on ski-shaped wooden boards and held onto a series of ropes. Their goal was to walk the boards from one end of a clearing to the other, where Alachua County Deputy Jack was waiting.
When a group of girls was struggling with their boards, Deputy Jack left his post at the finish line and tried to help the team come up with a strategy. He pointed out that the previous team had a lot of success calling out commands so everyone knew when to move. The girls listened to Deputy Jack and calls of “One, two, three, LIFT!” could be heard ringing through the trees.
Deputy Keith from Okaloosa County enjoyed the time he spent with his campers. The girls in his group talked to the deputy about their lives, including their parents and siblings, and he offered advice for how to work on those relationships back home.
“A lot of these kids, like these girls, don’t have father figures,” Deputy Keith explained. “It’s a big deal to them to make them feel like the center of the universe.”
On another, sunnier morning, a group of boys gathered around the lake with a cluster of fishing poles and two cans of worms. Deputies from Leon and Alachua counties helped the boys put weights on their lines and dig worms out of the dirt-filled cans to put on their hooks.
Many of these young boys had never been fishing before. The deputies made it their mission to make sure every boy in the cabin caught a fish before they left for the next activity. Each deputy teamed up with a boy and hiked around the lake to find the perfect spot. Whenever a camper would reel in their first catch, their shouts of excitement echoed across the lake.
Our summer camping programs are built around these interactions between campers and deputies. Boys and girls spend the week learning to build healthy relationships with Law Enforcement Officers from their communities. When you send a kid to camp, you are helping them to learn how to respect themselves, authority figures and the world around them. Thank you for helping our summer camp programs continue to change lives!
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In the early mornings at Ed Van Ness Farm, Ranchers meet up to get the feeding done before the worst of the heat arrives. At the stables, Juan and Manny wait for Khalid to return from the field with a horse to pull the wagon. Today it’s Rudy, an experienced wagon horse. When Khalid leads Rudy out of the pen, the boys get to work assembling the wagon harness
around the horse.
Manny is new to the farm program, so Juan and Khalid take the time to show him the proper way to assemble the harness. Even when they have to go back and correct his work, they are explaining their movements so he knows the right way for next time.
Juan has been at the Ranch for a year, and has worked at the farm for most of that time. Even though the work can be challenging, the environment has inspired a lot of change in this young man.
“Everything changed when I started working here,” Juan said. “Everything got better.”
Once the harness is assembled, they guide Rudy backward into the wagon frame and connect him to the front. One of the Ranchers sits in the driver’s seat, holding the reins until Rudy is in place. Manny lifts the heavy feed barrel and lets it land with a thud on the back of the wagon. The other boys pull themselves up onto the wagon bed, feet dangling over the edge as Rudy
pulls them toward the barn to pick up the feed.
Even though this task is second-nature to Juan now, he had to start out at the farm just like every other Rancher in the work program. He had to apply for the position, interview and get hired.
On his first day as a volunteer to check out how the farm operates, Juan almost lost his chance. Part of the reason Juan’s family chose the Youth Ranches was to help him keep his anger in check. When he first arrived at the Boys Ranch, Juan was sure he was going to keep up his bad behavior with no consequences.
“I got angry and cussed out one of the adults out at the farm,” Juan remembers. “He told me to go back to my cottage.”
Working at the farm is a promotion from other work programs at the Ranch. It pays the most money and teaches the widest variety of real-world skills that can be used in a future career.
Juan had to earn that position, and his behavior that day proved he wasn’t ready.
A few weeks later, Farm Manager Jeff Parker had a conversation with Juan. He told him that if he went to the adult he had yelled at and apologized, he would get another chance to apply at the farm.
“It was hard,” Juan said. “I was embarrassed, but I went and apologized.” Since becoming a part of Mr. Parker’s team, Juan has come to respect and trust him and other people, something he struggled with before coming to the Ranch.
“I came here having no respect for anyone, and then I met Mr. Jeff and he’s like the dad I never had,” Juan said.
Now that he’s been working at the farm for several months, Juan can see how far he’s come at the Ranch.
He works well with a team and has learned to control his anger instead of lashing out. When the feeding team makes their way around the Ranch, the boys go on autopilot. One of them steers the wagon toward the cattle pen, and two boys jump down and grab bags of feed to empty into the troughs.
The herd of cattle gathers together behind the boys, waiting patiently for the troughs to be filled and breakfast to begin.
As the boys make their way down a hilly dirt road to feed the horses, they crack jokes and help each other with their tasks. The sun rises higher and sweat starts to bead on their foreheads, but they will continue until the task is done.
Despite the sometimes hard work required at the farm, the boys do it without complaint. It’s work worth doing—both for the skills they learn and for the time spent gleaning wisdom from the staff they work alongside.
“I’ve really learned to take initiative,” Juan says about his time at the farm. “If I see something that needs cleaning or doing, I don’t just leave it for someone else. I do it myself.”
At the 2021 Awards Banquet, Jeff Parker presented Juan with the Agricultural Award. Both of them poked fun at the other while Juan ascended the stairs to accept the shiny new belt buckle.
Your donations make it possible for young men like Juan to get a second chance. Would you consider a donation today to support the boys and girls in our programs?