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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.
Thank you for giving young men like Juan a second chance to turn their lives around!
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Before Anabelle came to the Ranch, her family was already looking for help. She was falling behind in school and her behavior was getting out of control. Eventually, Anabelle crossed a line and her family’s search led them to the Youth Ranches.
“I took my mom’s car out for a joy ride,” Anabelle admitted sheepishly. “Events had led up to it and I got arrested. It pushed them to find a place for me.”
Now, eight months later, Anabelle is thriving at the Ranch. Instead of being restricted to virtual school due to COVID, she can attend our on-campus learning center in a safe environment. Her grades have improved drastically, and she is excited to start her junior year this semester.
“At the Ranch I was back in a classroom environment and that helped a lot,” she said. “I got my grades back up from D’s and F’s to A’s and B’s.”
With a bright personality and quick sense of humor, it’s hard to imagine a girl like Anabelle being reserved and closed off. But before coming to the Ranch, her choice in friends had caused her to shut down.
“My mom always said I was the outgoing one,” she remembers. “But I just fell in with the wrong crowd and sat back in the shadows.”
At the Ranch, away from negative influences, Anabelle’s natural leadership skills shine. She began taking on more responsibility in her cottage and trying to earn privileges, like a cell phone.
“It’s just stepping up in the cottage, talking to Mom and Pop, and cleaning up after myself,” she said. Part of this process includes what her cottage mom calls “Carport Time.” The girls gather around a patio table under the covered carport outside of their cottage and talk to their mom and pop. If they are frustrated or excited, or feeling down, they know there is a place they can go where they will be heard.
While living in a cottage with other girls and going to school on campus, Anabelle has made it a point to try and control her emotions. She understands that waiting and listening will yield better results than lashing out. That often means stepping back and observing before diving headfirst into something.
“I’m very emotional sometimes and I’ve improved a lot in that," she said. “I get control of myself first and observe what’s going on,” she said.
As Anabelle gets ready for her junior year of high school, she is taking all the things she’s learned and trying to create a plan for her future.
“I want to be a cosmetologist,” she said. “I’ve always loved hair and nails, so I thought it would be nice to do. I’m starting the nail tech program next year.”
While she continues keeping up her grades and working on her personal growth, Anabelle also takes time to focus on her art. Part of her job working with the Recreation Director on campus is helping to design thank-you letters for our donors.
“It’s an outlet for me,” she said. “I draw when I’m sad or happy, or have a burst of inspiration.”
With so many things happening in this upcoming school year, Anabelle is making sure all the improvements she’s made are permanent. She continues to do her best at her job site, in school, and on building relationships with her cottage parents.
“I’m keeping people around me that support me,” she said. “Everyone around here supports and uplifts each other. So I’m keeping those people in my life.”
Your support makes it possible for us to help young people like Anabelle. Would you consider a donation today to support the boys and girls in our programs?
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Living at the Youth Ranches often offers the perfect amount of stability for good kids on the wrong path to turn everything around. Replacing negative influences with a traditional family environment inspires them to go with the flow. One benefit of this is that our boys and girls end up genuinely enjoying the family they find at the Youth Ranches.
Takaya had already done her research when she arrived at the Ranch. She had not been going to school at all, and that threatened her ability to graduate. When the Ranch became an option for her, she went online and researched everything she could about how the program worked and what would be expected of her while she was here.
“I thought it was pretty nice,” she remembers. “I was willing to try it.”
The other girls in her cottage were already familiar with the routine, and Takaya didn’t want to get left behind.
“At home, it was just me and my sister, and we both didn’t want to go to school, so we didn’t,” Takaya said. “But here, the other girls were going to school with no issue, so it seemed like I should do that, too. It motivated me.”
Now, Takaya gets up every morning and gets ready for school, knowing she has to hurry to get breakfast before she goes.
“I’m always rushing,” she said, laughing.
When she gets home from school, she grabs a snack from the kitchen before starting on her chores. This normally involves cleaning windows and mowing the grass, but recently the routine has changed.
“Now, because of COVID, we sanitize a lot,” she said. She uses disinfectant spray to wipe down any high-contact surfaces in the house.
After homework and chores, Takaya has time to relax before dinner. Sometimes she grabs a basketball and walks over to the court next to her cottage. Other times she just spends time talking with the other girls.
“It goes by fast because we’re all just chitchatting, and then it’s dinner time.”
After dinner, the cottage family gets together to work on social skills as a group.
Every day a new skill is introduced and they talk about what it looks like to use it effectively. This time devoted to connecting as a family has had a positive effect on Takaya.
“I never really considered anybody family other than my actual family,” Takaya explained, “because I didn’t really have a close bond with other people. But when I came here, it made me open to being close with other people.”
Even as she begins to open up to the family she has found at the Ranch, Takaya maintains a very pronounced sense of independence. When facing a problem, she works hard to find a solution on her own.
“I like to try and do things on my own first, before I ask for help,” she said.
One task that is waiting in the near future for Takaya is getting ready to take the next step into adulthood. She is a senior this year, and after she graduates she is planning on moving to the Polk Sheriff’s Charities Scholarship House and going to college.
“I’m going to keep my priorities straight,” she said.
Her dream career is to be a doctor, but she knows that it will take a lot of work. Living at the Ranch has given Takaya the confidence she needs to work toward a bright future. She’s built strong relationships with her cottage parents and the girls in her cottage, and now she’s ready to take the next step.
“Being at the Ranch gives you the opportunity to grow and learn,” she said.
“You make friends, meet new people, and get help with anything you need.”