Approximately 250 Polk County residents joined Polk Sheriff Grady Judd and Hardee Sheriff Arnold Lanier Saturday at the Sheriff’s Youth Villa’s 42nd Annual Open House in Bartow.
A tent housed guests visiting the girl’s home on State Road 60 just east of Bartow and took advantage of the opportunity to tour the facility that houses 37 girls from fifth-graders to college freshmen.
Residents were treated to a free barbecue lunch courtesy of Lanier and his department and heard the girls’ choir offer a rendition of “Lean on Me,” along with testimonials from two residents who touted the experiences they obtained while living at the Villa.
Latanya, a resident at the group home, told the crowd that when she arrived at the Villa she “was a troublemaker” who has “turned things around” and now holds down a job with the Board of County Commissioners Code Enforcement office.
Another, Amber, a 16-year-old Bartow High School student, also told the group she arrived five years ago with “family and trust issues” but had since developed a “good relationship with my parents.” She also explained that she had arrived with a barely passing grade point average in school and had raised that to a B.
“This place has changed me,” she said, “and has given me goals I want to reach.” She added that she wanted to join the military when she graduated from school. “Now, I am grateful for the people in my life.”
Judd, who is also the president of the Florida Sheriff’s Association that founded the Sheriff’s Youth Ranches 57 years ago, told the group that the youth ranches were started to help troubled youth “keep out of jail” and originally catered only to boys.
He said that more than 100,000 boys and girls had since lived and learned at youth facilities in Bartow, Live Oak, Safety Harbor and Bradenton.
Judd even cited his own mentor and former Polk Sheriff’s Lieutenant Wally Edwards as an example of youth ranches’ alumni.
“He guided me with talents and skills he learned at the boy’s ranch in Live Oak when he was a kid,” Judd explained. The sheriff also told the audience donations and support from Florida’s 67 sheriffs keeps the facilities and programs in operation. “We have to pay it forward and your support helps us to do that.”
Saturday’s open house was also an opportunity for the community to bid farewell to Roger Bouchard, president of the Florida Youth Ranches headquartered in Live Oak. He retires in September after 42 years with the organization, he said. He added that Bill Frye, who has been with the organization for 20 years, will be taking over as president when he retires.
The Bartow facility opened in 1972 and has served girls since opening. It has facilities for 40 girls presently and will expand that to 50 when a Villa building under renovation reopens.
Residents attend local schools or study at a learning center on a campus operated by the county school board. Bartow Director Erika Key told the attendees that community support was vital to the program’s success and that she hoped to reach out to the business community for internships for residents with local businesses.
“We are thankful for your support,” she said. “They (the girls) need it.”
To learn more
Visit: www.youthranches.org, or call 863-533-0371.