Written by: Brianna Price
Our Polk County Sheriff’s Office is always in the spotlight. They make sure that Polk County is a safe and thriving place. But there are some charitable things that the Sheriff’s Office does that some of us might not even be aware of.
Recently I learned of the Florida Sheriff’s Youth Ranches, a non-profit organization, supported by Sheriff Judd, Polk Sheriff Charities and many generous members of our community and state, offers children a family oriented and safe place to live if they have been removed from their homes or have been placed voluntarily. This program was created by Florida Sheriffs who wanted to address a need.
I met with Robin Sumner, who is the Unit Director at the Florida Sheriff’s Youth Villas in Bartow, to learn more about this organization. Robin was able to walk me through their campus, showing me all that they offer the children who are in their care.
The Florida Sheriffs Youth Villa in Bartow was chartered in 1970, but did not open until 1972. This was originally created as The Girls Villa and continues to be today, with some small exceptions. In order to keep siblings together when they are removed from their homes, the ranch allows siblings of opposite gender to stay together. This is something special that the youth ranch is able to do, as opposed to regular foster systems who can have trouble keeping the siblings together.
The Youth Villa sits on 125 acres of land and has many amenities for the children to experience a fun filled life surrounded by “family” until they are either adopted, are able to go home or graduate high school. “I lived 15 miles from this facility and never knew that it was here,” Robin shared with me. Like her, I had no clue that this campus was in Bartow doing such valuable work in the lives of children.
The first thing that Robin showed me were the cottages that the children stay in. Each cottage has a married couple who live in the house with the kids. Typically, they are retired or decided to make a career change. “The kids refer to them as mom and pop.” The couples serves as the mom and dad of the house and have the same duties as any parent would. They attend school events, help them with homework, take them to doctor’s appointments and have family meals with them every day. The only difference is that these parents spend two full weeks on duty and one week off duty. Having a married couple in the home reinforces the family environment that the Youth Ranches are trying to share with the children, some of whom may not have ever had a family experience.
All of the cottages are very similar layout, but with personalized decorations and furniture. The Youth Ranch accepts donations of furniture, appliances and home decor. They also have a thrift store that they work with directly to provide them with the appropriate materials they need to make these cottages feel like a home.
Robin also shared that some of these children come into their care with absolutely nothing. In some cases, when the children are removed from their homes, they come to the Youth Ranches with nothing but what they are wearing, Robin added “One time we had a child come to us with no shoes on her feet and no extra clothes.” Similar to the thrift store, they also have a boutique that provides them with clothes and other physical necessities.
All of the children at the Youth Ranches are required to attend public school or an alternative educational program. After a full day of school, the students come home and have an afternoon routine. They come home, have snack, do chores, have family-style dinner and sometimes have devotional time. Giving these children a routine helps provide them with the much-needed structure in their lives. They also have “age appropriate” jobs around campus. The Youth Ranches wants to instill responsibility as this not only teaches them responsibility; it also help to build self-confidence.
Outside of their chores and campus jobs, their beautiful property offers many activities for the children to get involved in. They have an activity center, a lake, pool, tennis court, basketball hoops, a playground and plenty of land to play on. This gives the children a chance to get active in different sports and areas of play.
The most recent addition to the Youth Ranches, which is still under construction, is their Polk Sheriff’s Charities Scholarship house program. Many children who come into programs like the Youth Ranch eventually graduate high school and are released from care. They have to get a job, go to college and fend for themselves. These students are not always prepared to set out on their own at this time. For those reasons, with the help of the Sheriff’s Charities, the Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches decided to begin a new program just for these students.
With plenty of space and cottages on their property, the Youth Ranches already had a cottage available for the older students to utilize for this program. But it needed renovating! The Sheriff’s Charities raised the funds to renovate the house so that the students could experience a dorm style home. Robin said that, “The biggest concern for the students aging out and applying for this program, is that they don’t want the house to feel “kidish.” They want to have a different set of rules and to feel like they aren’t the same as the younger children on campus.”
Keeping that in mind, the house was designed specifically for this age group. With the expectation of having 10 students, this house is fully equipped with 5 refrigerators, plenty of shelving space, as well as ample cabinet space. They also designed the rooms like college campus dorms.
While, this house sounds like more fun with less rules and more freedom, but it doesn’t come without responsibilities. Robin said that no one can just “walk into” this program. Each student has to have a written plan of what they will be doing for school, scholarships, grocery shopping, study time and so much more. Once they have completed that plan, they must present it to a selection committee and be approved into the program. The majority of these students will be in the program on scholarship at Polk State College.
Unlike the other houses on their campus, this one will have a mentor or resident director living with them 24/7. This will give them an opportunity to have freedom, but also have the accountability that they need to attend class, do homework and keep up with their other responsibilities. The current timeline is that this first group of students will move into this house at the end of July in preparation for the coming school year.
At the Youth Ranches, the motto is work, study, play and pray. Their mission is to instill vital and important virtues into each child that enters their campus. Robin shared her frustration when people assume that the Youth Ranches are a detention or jailing facility for children who are misbehaving. “We want people to know who we are and why we are here. We aren’t a detention center. These children aren’t inmates.”
Robin desires to raise awareness for this program and the work that it is doing in children who aren’t bad. They are just in need of a helping hand.
This program doesn’t have a break in the summer when school is out. They actually host a traditional summer day camp as well. They take this time to get involved in the community with visits to the Winter Haven Splash Pad and the Winter Haven community pool. They have also gotten involved with the PACE Center for Girls, as well as local churches.
This summer, they will be holding a school supply drive. Children who have been placed at the Youth Ranches often don’t have solid collared shirts, backpacks, folders, pencils, scissors and other school supplies. The Youth Ranches have to cater to each grade level and, most of the time, each grade requires something different, which makes gathering supplies even harder.
The Youth Ranches also allow people or groups to come visit the property to learn more about what they do. They even allow different organizations to come and spend time teaching the children. For example, the Polk County Sheriff’s Office visited and taught the girls self-defense. This helps local organizations learn about Youth Ranches and also opens the children up to new experiences.
When I asked Robin what she wanted Winter Haven to know about the Florida Sheriff’s Youth Ranches she emphasized that time and time again, people will refer to their organization as a juvenile detention center. But Robin wants to share with the community that the children at the ranch are amazing. They are there to continue to grow into happy and whole individuals while being surrounded by loving people in a safe, family environment.