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Celebrating Christmas in Conn Cottage
As the cottage parents began to clear some counter space in the kitchen, the residents of Conn Cottage couldn’t help but poke their heads in the doorway to see what was going on. They watched their Cottage Mom lay out bags of icing, sprinkles, and fresh baked sugar cookies. The cookies looked delicious! They were shaped like Christmas trees, stockings, snowmen, and gingerbread men.
Old and young Ranchers filed into the kitchen. Leiva, the oldest Rancher in Conn Cottage, tied on an apron and got to work. She helped Alex get a bag of green icing open and he began the work of filling in a Christmas tree shaped cookie. Arthuro followed behind him with a generous pinch of sprinkles. Several minutes later, Anna and Jason checked in to see what all the fuss was about.
They were soon equipped with bags of brightly colored icing and a cookie in need of some flair. Before coming to the Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches, many of our boys and girls wouldn’t be able to recall ever taking the time to participate in Christmas traditions. Their home lives are often filled with neglect and unmet needs. The holiday activities we take for granted become meaningful experiences for our youth. Whether it’s decorating Christmas cookies, opening colorfully wrapped presents, or enjoying time together as a family, each new experience is a cause for celebration!
Leiva sets an example as a big sister in her cottage. She teases her “little brothers,” coaxing them out of their shells. Alex has already warmed up to her. He follows her lead and listens when she guides him on how to keep the icing on his cookie. Arthuro stays quiet, focusing on his project of applying sprinkles on top of a finished cookie. His is a hard shell to break, but Leiva doesn’t give up until he cracks a smile.
Anna takes her time with her cookie. She switches out icing colors frequently, a vision in her head of what her masterpiece will look like. Although she’s focused, she takes the time to share with Jason, passing different colors back and forth as needed. Jason is quick to laugh and quick to make a mess. He had to take more than one trip to the sink to clean smeared streaks of icing off of his hands. Mom was there to help him and hold out paper towels to dry off his hands.
It’s because of your generous giving that our Ranchers can focus on the fun aspects of Christmas. They don’t have to worry about where they’ll get their next meal, where they’ll sleep tonight, or how they’ll get to school. Because your gifts provide all of those essential things, our boys and girls can focus on other important things, like what color icing to put on their cookies.
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Ahead of the Curve
Andrea came to live at the Youth Villa after a series of hard, frustrating, and heartbreaking events in her life. A death in her family had fractured the relationships she clung to, and conflict continued to erupt at home. Her grades were low due to the stress of worrying about the adults in her life. “I was distracted,” Andrea said. “I had a lot going on.” She was drowning in negativity.
“My first impression of this place was that I had never seen anything like it,” Andrea remembered about her arrival at the Youth Villa. “You get comfortable after a while.”
Comfort is not the same as change. “When I first came in, my mindset was so negative,” she said. Andrea spent a lot of her time at the Villa focused on what had gone wrong in her life, and before long, her progress was at a standstill.
The patience of her cottage parents, a customized growth plan from the Youth Villa staff, and a change in schools gradually began to crack open her shell. She began to see her path toward success. Three years later, her 0.9 grade point average has catapulted to a 4.0. Andrea is no longer wasting her time dwelling on the negative.
“I realized I can’t worry about that all the time,” she explained. Today, she is your typical teenager— full of restless energy, quick to break into a smile, and an avid fan of all genres of music.
“My attitude is probably the biggest change since coming here,” Andrea said. “I feel like I’ve changed because I know that everything happens for a reason. I’m in a good place and I will keep going.”
Andrea’s progress is nothing short of inspiring. Catching up in school wasn’t enough for her—she’s on track to graduate in the spring of 2020 at the age of 17, a full year ahead.
“I like challenging myself,” Andrea said. “A lot of people said that my background would define me, and that wasn’t the truth. I’m proving them wrong.”
Her future goals are just as lofty as her current ones. Andrea plans on working toward her master’s degree and going into social work. This career has been at the back of Andrea’s mind long before she found her home at the Youth Villa.
“I decided I wanted to be a social worker when I was little. I was in foster care in South Carolina when I was 6 years old. Even though I was little, I still remember how my caseworker talked to me about how much she enjoyed her job and how it can change kids’ lives. It really impacted me.”
“I want to be one of those social workers who is there emotionally for the kids and enjoy what I’m doing,” Andrea said.
A typical day is filled with a loaded class schedule, chores, and family dinner with the other girls in her cottage and their cottage parents. Andrea enjoys the moments of peace where she can relax in her room. She gets comfortable on her bed and draws in a sketchbook, journals, listens to music, or reads.
“It’s my comfort zone,” Andrea said. “I love it.”
Andrea’s time at the Youth Villa has turned her life completely around. Once she made the decision that she was going to get the most out of her life, nothing could stop her.
“I’ve been through a lot, but you wouldn’t know it because of how much I’ve kept going and kept trying to do the best for myself.”
With determination like that, it makes sense that Andrea’s advice for other people in her situation would be spot on: “Don’t let what you go through define you, just learn from it. Everything you go through is a lesson in life. So don’t take the negative from it, take the positive.”
Thank you for giving Andrea the opportunity to become the smart, driven, and successful young woman she is today.
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Nestled against a chain-link fence that wraps around the Boys Ranch pool is a raised flower bed teeming with life. Green every brick barrier as spinach, tomatoes, onions, and peppers thrive under the Florida sun. The Miracle Garden is a onestop-shop for a fresh, organic salad for the boys who look after it.
Boys Ranch Recreational Director Tony Dodd got the idea to plant a garden on campus when a few Ranchers became curious about the salads Mr. Dodd ate for lunch every day. Scott, one of the Ranchers who helped build and maintain the garden, commented, “We all wanted to do it because he showed us the salads he made. He let us eat some of it and it was really good.” The other three boys—Jeremy, Jason, and Tyler—were also interested in the project.
“Some of us wanted to eat better, get in shape and get healthy,” Tyler said.
Before there was a garden, the small patch of earth was an island of landscaping that was lost amid the concrete expanse of the campus pool.
“After we cleaned it out, we spent like a whole week scooping cow manure,” Tyler said, laughing.
“Dried cow manure,” Jeremy corrected. "We went to the field and scooped up a lot of dried cow manure. We put it into barrels, put it into the trailer and then unloaded
it into the garden. Got some shovels and broke it all up, and then we got a bunch of soil and put it on top of that.”
The hard work involved in putting their garden together wasn’t a deterrent for these Ranchers. They listened when Pop Dodd explained why they layer the manure and then the soil and how to pull weeds and water the plants.
“He said it would look really nice. Now it looks more than really nice,” Jeremy said.
Once the soil was properly layered in the bed, the boys had to decide what plants they wanted to include in their garden. They looked to Mr. Dodd for help, remembering the delicious salad they had all sampled.
“Some of the plants we bought, and some of the plants Pop Dodd had at his house,” Scott explained.
One of the most important aspects of this garden is the lack of chemicals used to fight off pests.
“We didn’t use any pesticides,” Jeremy said.
“No chemicals at all,” Scott added. “It’s all natural. Organic.”
Right now, the Miracle Garden consists of Seminole pumpkins, an assortment of spinach, moringa (God’s Tree), yardlong beans, Egyptian walking onions, cherry tomatoes, purple tree collards, mushroom herb, and peppers. Now that they can see the fruits of their labor, all four boys are excited to expand their garden across the Ranch.
“I would definitely like to see an apple tree,” Jeremy said.
“Yeah, somewhere on the Ranch,” Scott agreed. “Because fruit, when it’s hot and everything, it hydrates you and you feel better.”
“We could also do raspberries and blackberries,” Tyler said. “And blueberries and watermelons.”
“I’d like to plant some Japanese plums,” Jason added. “It’s small, like the size of a grape, and orange. Like an orange cherry.”
The boys aren’t shy about picking out a snack from their garden. Often times they’ll pick a stack of various types of spinach, forgo a bowl and salad dressing, and eat what Mr. Dodd calls a “leaf sandwich.”
“It’s better than Skittles!” Jeremy said.
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Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are beginning to realize that states are in a difficult position, with children’s lives at risk if they rush to comply with Family First legislation without adequate plans in place.
By Bill Frye
Published July 5, 2019
This column first appeared as a special to the Tampa Bay Times.
The need for foster parents in Florida is critical. In many regions of the state, there is a shortage of beds and suitable placement options for children entering the foster care system. The Family First Prevention Services Act — which Congress passed last year as part of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 — seeks to change foster care across the nation by investing more funds in treatment and prevention services that are aimed at keeping families together and preventing children from entering the system.
Part of this reform includes limiting states from placing children in residential group homes. Proponents argue that foster homes are better for children than group homes, and child welfare staff should only use group homes as a short-term last resort. Under Family First, states risk losing federal funds if they place children in residential group settings — even family-style models — for longer than two weeks.
With an approaching deadline of Sept. 30 to comply with the new legislation, many states have been trying to reform their systems and limit their use of group homes. However, looking at other states trying to comply with these reforms provides an alarming glimpse into what could happen here in Florida, with fewer options for foster children than we have today. There are stories, in states like Illinois, of children being housed in hotels or, in some cases, locked psychiatric facilities without clinical needs because caseworkers have nowhere else to put them. Even before this legislation, Florida has struggled with finding suitable places to put children. The Department of Children and Families settled a lawsuit earlier this year in South Florida (H.G. vs. Carroll) over the state’s failure to provide enough foster home beds.
Nearly 40 percent of Florida’s child welfare budget comes from the federal government under Title IV-E funds. It’s understandable that state officials are concerned about potentially losing this significant source of funding. However, as we’re starting to see in other states, most states are not ready to meet the standards of the Family First Prevention Services Act without significant consequences to their foster care systems. Trying to do so means fewer options for children entering a foster care system that is already struggling to keep up. It could also result in leaving children in dangerous situations because federal funds incentivize keeping families together.
Fortunately, lawmakers on Capitol Hill are beginning to realize that states are in a difficult position, with children’s lives at risk if they rush to comply with this legislation without adequate plans in place. The State Flexibility for Family First Transitions Act (S 107), introduced earlier this year by Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla, and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., would provide states with a two-year extension, allowing them to continue receiving Title IV-E funds while they figure out how to comply with Family First and how residential group homes fit into the picture before simply eliminating them as part of the continuum of care.
The goals of Family First include keeping children from entering foster care while, at the same time, reducing the use of group homes. However, it’s important to recognize that high-quality, family-style residential group homes across the country have played a role in keeping kids out of foster care for many years. Residential group homes are also designed to keep siblings together instead of splitting them up, which often occurs in the foster system. In many cases, parents or guardians voluntarily bring their child to a family style group home like the Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches. Cottage parents and staff work with the young man or woman to get things back on track — which includes improving their grades, changing their behaviors, developing a healthy self-esteem and more. When a child is able to return home and the relationship with their family is restored, it’s a success story that we hope to see repeated again and again.
The State Flexibility for Family First Transitions Act is gaining attention, with Florida Reps. Greg Steube, a Republican, and Kathy Castor, a Democrat, recently introducing a companion bill the House, HR 3116. Florida Republican Reps. Matt Gaetz, Gus Bilirakis and Neal Dunn have recently signed on as co-sponsors. We hope other members of Congress, including other members of our Florida legislative delegation, will take notice and recognize that states need more time to make these changes to their foster care systems without risking children’s lives.
Bill Frye is the president of the Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches, a residential group care program with four campuses for boys and girls. The Youth Ranches has operated in Florida since 1957.
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The Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches has been selected by SE Grocers to participate in the Giving Tag Program. When you purchase a Community Bag at any BI-LO, Harvey’s, Winn Dixie or Fresco y Más store, you can use the Giving Tag attached to the bag to direct a $1 donation to the Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches.
This is a great way to support the environment and fund raise for our cause all year long. The cost of the Community Bag with the Giving Tag is $2.50. There are two designs to choose from.
After purchasing your bag follow the instructions on the Giving Tag to direct a $1 donation to the Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches.
Please help us maximize this opportunity by sharing this information with your family and friends on social media!
For more information about this program, please contact Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches Director of Development Wayne Witczak at 1-800-765-3797 or email email@example.com.