A home on the ranch
A benefactor donated land nearly 20 years ago for siblings to be helped by the Florida Sheriff's Youth Ranch.
By JARED LEONE
Published May 11, 2007
SAFETY HARBOR - Long gone are the days when cattle grazed, roosters crowed and horses ran on D.A. Salls' farm off Enterprise Road.
But for the past 30 years, the property has remained productive as a steady crop of teens has grown up at the Florida Sheriff's Youth Ranch there.
"The kids have it very structured here, from the moment they wake up to the moment they go to bed, " said Scott Halbach, unit director of the Safety Harbor facility.
The Youth Ranch program is celebrating its 50th anniversary, and the ranch in Safety Harbor is unique among the four ranches statewide.
It is the only one set in an urban environment, and it is the only one that is co-ed, allowing it to take in brothers and sisters in need.
That's no accident.
In 1975, rancher and dairyman D.A. Salls called then-Sheriff Don Genung to ask if the Boys Ranch could use a cow.
Genung paid Salls and his wife, Catherine, a visit and said what Florida needed was a place where neglected children, especially brothers and sisters, could grow up in a homelike atmosphere and learn good values.
So in 1978, Salls, who died a year later at age 80, donated the 20-acre oasis of rustic Pinellas so the Youth Ranches could create a sibling facility.
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Since then, the Safety Harbor ranch has aided more than 1,770 troubled boys and girls.
Currently there are 20 boys and 10 girls who go to school, do chores, gossip, giggle, study and just plain live like kids 24 hours a day, seven days a week at the ranch.
The average stay for a rancher is 13 months, but there are exceptions.
Danny, 18, a rancher for the last seven years, is preparing to graduate from Countryside High School. The Times is withholding the ranchers' last names because some come from troubled families.
Because of his age, Danny has his own room and his cottage parents helped him set up his own bank account. He works two jobs and will start at St. Petersburg College in the fall.
The ranches aim to develop lawful, productive citizens through a broad range of family-centered services and what Halbach calls the four corners - work, study, pray and play.
The boys and girls on the ranch range from 8 to 18. When the child reaches goals set on arrival at the ranch, he or she will leave the program.
"We are in the business of prevention," Halbach said. "We are not a consequence, this is an opportunity."
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From the start, Pinellas County has played a key role in the growth and evolution of the Youth Ranches.
The program started with a donation in June 1957.
After two years of planning, $5, 000 and 140 acres of donated land on the Suwannee River, the Florida Sheriffs Boys Ranch began with a cottage with a capacity for 20 boys. The program was designed for boys aged 12 to 15 who came from broken and negligent families.
The children are identified by sheriffs, deputies, school administrators and parents as youths that come from broken homes and dysfunctional families, but none of them are criminals. And the goal for the Youth Ranch program is for them not to become future law-breakers.
Statewide the ranch program has helped more than 30, 000 boys and girls at its ranches in Pinellas, Manatee, Citrus and Suwannee counties.
Now, with an operating budget topping $18-million - little of it from government sources - the ranches depend on donations.
Pinellas has the deepest pockets of any county in Florida. In the past year, more than $2.5-million came from more than 1, 300 donors and wills and trusts in Pinellas. "It is a fact that we are the No. 1 county here, " said Don Meek, the ranches' donor relations liaison for the bay area. "That's very significant for us."
One Pinellas donor for nearly 30 years is Bessie Ruth Weil. She started giving to the Florida Sheriff's Youth Ranches after her first visit to the Safety Harbor ranch. It was her husband, LeRoy, who got her started.
Since that first visit Weil has donated well more than $100, 000 and a set of encyclopedias.
"As time went on it became one of my charities, " said Weil, who has no children of her own. "I have learned a lot about them and watched them grow."
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Jared Leone can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4109.