As a photojournalist for a major news network, Harlan Schmidt doesn’t have a typical workday. When he is given his work schedule, he has to be ready to move. As President Trump landed at Joint Base Andrews on December 31, 2020, Harlan was on the tarmac, ready to get a news-worthy photo. Harlan has traveled all over the country in pursuit of his career and currently resides in Washington, D.C.
Twenty-five years ago, this reality seemed far out of reach. In 1994, 14-yearold Harlan had landed himself in trouble. His younger sister had been born several years earlier with cerebral palsy, a disorder that affects a child’s motor functions. This took a lot of attention off of Harlan, who found himself with more freedom than he knew what to do with.
“I was a latchkey kid,” he said. “I’d come home and there was no one there. My parents were so invested in focusing on my sister that I basically hit puberty and went off and did whatever I wanted.”
Harlan would come home from school to an empty house. His parents both worked full-time jobs and had to make sure his sister made it to doctor’s appointments would grab his bike and meet up with the boys in his neighborhood.
“I don’t want to call them friends,” he said. “They were like frenemies. The people that I spent time with were all just bad, involved in bad things in one way or another.”
As he fell in with this group of boys, Harlan’s negative behavior escalated until he was stealing, breaking and entering, and getting involved with drugs.
“I was just being a juvenile delinquent because I had very little supervision and the environment that I was in at the time was pulling me in that direction.”
When Harlan was caught stealing a canoe from a couple in his neighborhood, he was presented with a choice.
“The couple said their son had gone to the Ranch, and they wouldn’t press charges if I joined,” he recalled.
After spending almost a year on the waiting list, Harlan was called up to the Boys Ranch in Live Oak, Florida. With his whole world having encompassed his neighborhood and the handful of boys he spent time with, coming to live at the Youth Ranches was a major change.
“I was around boys from all over the state. I met kids from Miami and Ocala and Plant City. It exposed me to other cultures,” Harlan said.
The boys ranged from rural cowboys to inner-city youth, all at the Ranch for a chance to turn their lives around. Harlan, son of a photojournalist, immediately found himself fascinated with the stories these boys could tell.
“I walked around with a tape recorder and I would interview other boys, asking for their stories,” Harlan said. “I would ask them how they got there and the stories were funny and tragic and sarcastic.”
The more stories Harlan collected, the more he realized something was different about him. He learned about boys who had been in dozens of foster homes and boys from living situations that were nothing like Harlan had ever experienced.
“I could tell I was different,” Harlan said. “I realized very quickly how fortunate I was because I had a family. So many boys there had to have the Ranch just to get by. They were going to live there until they were 18 years old.”
Some part of Harlan’s brain understood this fact: he had a mom and a dad to go home to, and some of these boys only had the Ranch. Harlan dove into the culture at the Ranch as his subconscious slowly chipped away at his preconceived notions about the world.
“I don’t think it was a totally conscious decision,” he said. “At that age, there is a lot of reacting to life versus proactively engaging it.”
However, once Harlan left the Ranch and returned home almost a year later, the Ranch’s impact on his life became very evident. Harlan moved in with a friend during his senior year of high school, moving to a different school in a bigger city and separating himself from the negative influences in his old neighborhood. He sought out the same diverse company he had found at the Ranch, making new friends that were kinder and didn’t go looking for trouble.
“The biggest thing I got from the Ranch was perspective. Perspective on the privilege that I had,” Harlan said. “It kind of hit the reset button for me when I got back. It planted the seed for me to grow up and take an active role in making sure that I take care of myself.”
Along with perspective, Harlan also left the Ranch with a strong work ethic. He worked at the Office of the President while he was a Rancher, cleaning offices and helping out in the warehouse during auctions. He also worked at the farm, learning how to break a heifer and take care of the animals. Because of this experience at the Ranch, Harlan prioritized getting a job when he returned home and saved up money for a car.
As an adult, Harlan is still no stranger to hard work. He started at the bottom of the television industry, traveled all over the country and even spent a year in Thailand as a freelance photographer. Slowly but surely he worked his way up to his current job as a photojournalist for CNN out of Washington, D.C.
“It’s just work, hard work,” he said. “If you put your mind to it and focus and work hard, with the opportunities that the Ranch gives you, you can have a normal life, you can have a family. You can succeed.”