If you had told Catherine Koclanes that one day she would become a businesswoman working in Chicago, it’s unlikely she would have believed you. Born into a family of six children, she tried to run away from home when she was 14.
That’s when Catherine found out about the Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches. She was intrigued by the program, especially when she learned the Youth Ranches offered college scholarships. She dreamed of going to college one day, but with little support at home, she didn’t see a path to making that happen.
When Catherine got to the Youth Ranch in Safety Harbor in 2005, she discovered a much different environment than her home life. As she describes it, there were rules. There was structure, with regular chores and daily homework after school. It wasn’t always easy.
“It was definitely really difficult at first,” Catherine said. “But I loved it. The ranch’s structure, having a mom and pop with other kids, it seemed more like a home.”
Day by day, Catherine’s life started to change. She brought her GPA up to a 3.8, got a part-time job at Einstein Bagels and began to love school. She formed an inseparable bond with her cottage mom and dad, Mr. Ron and Mrs. Linda, who hosted a going-away party for her this year before she moved to Chicago.
“I was blessed to have amazing cottage parents,” she said. “They’ve always been there for me. They raised me through the toughest times. When I get married, Mr. Ron will walk me down the aisle."
After high school, Catherine attended Stetson University on a full scholarship from the Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches Education Foundation. She graduated in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in business administration. Although several years had passed since her time in Safety Harbor, the Youth Ranches continued to play a big role in her life. She credits one of her mentors, Youth Ranches President Bill Frye, with guiding her through the college years, describing him as a “huge support.”
“I was blessed to watch over the years as a little shy, reserved young girl blossomed into a young lady full of ambition and self-confidence,” said Youth Ranches President Bill Frye. “I am so proud of Cathy as she overcame so much, and while she struggled at times, she never became cynical. I can also say that she brings joy to those who have the opportunity to spend even a few minutes in conversation with her.”
Today, Catherine lives in Chicago and works as a commercial insurance broker for Founders Professional, a national wholesale insurance brokerage.
When she reflects back on her time at the Youth Ranch, she says there are so many lessons she learned that helped her get where she is now. She encourages young women in the program today to stick with it, even when times are hard.
“You can go places that you’d never be able to go without the ranch,” she said. “I feel like there’s nothing I can’t do. The Youth Ranches gave me the mindset that I can do anything.”