Monday, April 6, 2009

Arkansas Sheriffs' Youth Ranch

Last week's adventure was a trip south on I-540 to one of Ellen's favorite charities, the Youth Ranch, located about 60 miles from Fayettevile on the other side of the Boston Mountains.

The Arkansas Sheriffs' Youth Ranch was incorporated in 1976, through the efforts of the state's 75 sheriffs and a number of other caring adults. The involvement of the sheriffs made perfect sense as they were often the first to become aware of families in crisis, and they knew if they didn't help these troubled at-risk children, they would more than likely run into them later as criminal adults. Their mission statement, "To address, remedy, and prevent child abuse and neglect by creating safe, healthy, and permanent homes for children" derives from their belief that abused, neglected, or abandoned children must establish a nurturing relationship with at least one caring adult to become a healthy productive adult themselves.

The residential program began in a mobile home that provided a nurturing environment for three boys. It wasn't long before a cottage was built, then a second – coined "Faith Hall" because Ranch officials began construction relying on their "faith" that funding would be there when it was needed. Their faith was fulfilled since "The Ranch" is now a 5-campus, 112-bed, therapeutic residential program serving homeless, abused, neglected, or abandoned children. The five campuses include the original 528-acre site on the White River near Batesville, a 95-acre site on the Spring River near Hardy, a 230-acre site on DeGray Lake near Amity, a 265-acre site in Mulberry near Alma, and one under development in Harrison. We visited the Mulberry ranch location near Fort Smith, Arkansas. Their beautiful facility was financed through the largesse of the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation for which this campus is named. The foundation funded 3 cottages, a lodge, an administration building, an independent living facility for residents over 18, and a gymnasium, seen below...

Children in the long-term program can remain at the Ranch from age 6 through post-secondary education and/or job training (at which time they would move to independent living.) Throughout its history, the Ranch has provided a home for more than 900 children who live in cottages as a family unit. Houseparents are trained in the Teaching Family Model. Perhaps most importantly, they strive to give children a sense of belonging – an awareness that they are part of a whole and that they have value. The houseparents, as role models, provide "frequent, tangible, unconditional expressions of love and support" and set "clear rules and limits." The residents live in a "family" and receive direct reward for achievements. The children are provided structured activities including assigned chores, camping, picnics, horseback riding, vacations, Scouting, and summer programs. All attend local schools. The Ranch paves the way for children to experience some of the best life has to offer, while providing them the birthright of every child – the right to healthcare, spiritual development, educational opportunities, a safe home and a loving therapeutic environment. The Ranch incorporates a "homelike environment" into the program by replicating a 1940s-style farm family, which in essence creates a large extended family or small village.

The cottages provide one or two person rooms as seen here...

...a family room for games, conversation, TV, and such...

... and a study room...

We toured the unused cottage which is why shelves are empty and the unlived-in-look predominates. This cottage is unoccupied until funds are donated to staff it, at which time more children will be accepted into the program.

Interestingly, the girls cottage has a pool table, which they love to play, while the boys cottage has PlayStation available -- each choice being the preference of the respective residents.

In addition to providing children with two loving houseparents, a large number of other caring adults – social workers, psychologists, tutors, farm hands, etc. – also serve as mentors. The houseparents model appropriate adult behavior while the other adults incorporate activities on the farm that reinforce the skills necessary to deal with rage and frustrations. "Families" share meals and household chores and participate in normal family activities such as watching TV, shopping, swimming, and eating out, and generally attend church together. Children are required to be involved in some type of church activity, but have some flexibility in choosing that involvement. Almost all residents are involved in some type of counseling program, either on campus or off.

On a typical school day, "ranchers" as the children are considered, catch the school bus at roughly 6:40 a.m. Each is responsible for waking himself or herself and getting ready in time to be transported to the bus stop. After school, ranchers attend two hours of tutoring Monday through Thursday. The amount of tutoring depends on a rancher's individual needs. Residents are expected to do a variety of household chores like keeping their room clean and doing their own laundry

They are encouraged to participate in extra-curricular activities at school or in the community. Horseback riding is offered as a regular activity at the Ranch. Residents may also participate in other aspects of the farm program as well. The Ranch has ponds stocked with a variety of fish and forests to roam. Weight lifting is available, as are aerobics, softball games, volleyball games, canoeing, camping, backpacking, rappelling, and spelunking.

Horses are also an important part of life at the Arkansas Sheriffs' Youth Ranches. Residents are encouraged to take part in the riding program, especially in the summer months. Many residents strike up friendships with a particular horse and build memories that last a lifetime -- memories of a large, warm animal, always glad to see them whether they carried a feed bucket or a saddle, a friend that gave confidence and a sense of responsibility at a critical time in their life when their self-esteem was low and responsibility was a word they did not yet understand. A child who grows up around horses can realize many assets from a relationship with these large creatures. A horse can be a gentle and forgiving friend who at the same time requires respect and understanding. A child who lives around horses gets an awareness of who he is based on a grass roots way of life that hasn't changed much in hundreds of years, a confidence that will carry them into adulthood as a stronger person. This is the power of horses and an integral part of the Arkansas Sheriffs' Youth Ranches. To that end, a magnificent equestrian facility including arena are on the grounds and used for the annual rodeo.

This is a wonderful non-profit organization doing important work, and though I am not an Arkansas resident, I support their efforts wholeheartedly and contribute financially to their worthwhile cause. Ellen also has a post regarding our visit here.

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