BATESVILLE When it was announced that Mike Cumnock, CEO of Arkansas Sheriffs’ Youth Ranches, was set to retire at the end of 2013, the emails began pouring in.
“I was young and rebellious, but Mr. Mike, he saw something in me,” wrote one former rancher. “He guided me and molded me. … He’s an angel sent from heaven to watch over all of God’s neglected, abused and abandoned children. He did it gloriously.”
Cumnock first joined the ranch staff in 1995 as director of professional services, but his ties started out long before that. When the ranches were first opened by members of the Arkansas Sheriffs’ Association in 1976 as a refuge for abused and neglected children, residents of Independence County were hesitant to have a ranch in the Batesville area. The association turned to Cumnock to drum up support for the project to be there.
“I started with them asking us to be supporters of the project,” Cumnock said. “When it actually opened up, we were volunteers, taking kids to church and things on the weekends.”
Working with the ranch always has been an easy choice for Cumnock, who has a background in
psychology, sociology and education. Raised primarily by his grandparents, he credits much of his decision to get so involved with youth and with his church to their influence.
“Where would I have been had it not been [for them]?” Cumnock asked. “My grandparents basically took me in and gave me anything I needed. They were a great support system. For me, it gave me a sense of needing to pay it forward.”
Cumnock lived with his grandparents in Little Rock in an old house at Sixth and Rock streets. He attended Catholic High School and graduated from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock in 1970 with a degree in psychology.
“I was the kid who everybody in school came to for advice, like Dear Abby,” Cumnock said. “Even guys older than me at Catholic High would come for dating advice, and I wasn’t even dating.”
Cumnock realized during his undergraduate years that he didn’t want to be stuck in a medical office but wanted to be in the therapy field. So he began working at the Arkansas State Hospital while he attended the University of Arkansas Graduate School of Social Work for his master’s degree.
In his senior year at UALR, Cumnock met his now-wife, Sarah, through a mutual friend, and the two married in June 1970. In early 1976, the couple moved to Batesville for Cumnock to begin work with the North Arkansas Mental Health Center.
“I got a reputation early on of being able to work with difficult patients,” Cumnock said. “Other therapists would give me clients that they weren’t doing well with. I love those kinds of patients.”
In 1977, Cumnock became a part-time professor at Lyon College in Batesville, becoming full time in 1980.
As Cumnock and his wife settled in Batesville, they hoped to start a family.
“We thought, ‘Maybe this isn’t going to happen,’” Cumnock said.
The couple began thinking about taking in foster children, and the decision was quickly made for them. On Christmas Day 1977, Cumnock went to an area jail to take dinner and a few books to a young man who had been arrested for drug possession.
“We left, and the kid started crying, and I could hear him,” Cumnock said. “I said, ‘You know, I’d be willing to take him home until his court date. It’s Christmas Day.’”
The jailer called the judge, and the boy, Rick, was released into Cumnock’s care. The teen lived with the Cumnocks until he graduated from high school and was ready to work. After he left, the Department of Human Services asked the coupe if they wanted to take on another child. Over the years, Cumnock and his wife have cared for 13 foster children, most of whom lived with them for several years. Cumnock stays in touch with the majority of the foster children, who are now grown with families of their own.
“We have foster kids who are in their 40s now, and we’re the only parents they’ve known,” Cumnock said. “Their children know us as their grandparents.”
When Cumnock and his wife were almost 40 and had been taking in foster children for nearly a decade, Sarah became pregnant with the couple’s daughter, Mara.
“She’s grown up with kids in and out all the time,” Cumnock said. “She and Ken, one of our sons who lives in Virginia, are best buds. He was 15 and in the waiting room on the day of her delivery. He was very protective. No one messes with a kid if your big brother is 15.”
Although Cumnock and his wife never adopted any of the children they fostered, he still refers to them as his sons and daughters. The couple would offer to go through the adoption process, but Cumnock said the children often felt there was no need — they already considered them parents. The Cumnocks are adopting one of the adults whom they cared for as a teen.
“His daughter asked him a lot of questions about us being her grandparents, and he just wants to make it official, for us to legally have grandparents’ rights,” Cumnock said.
After decades of volunteering at the ranch, Cumnock was offered the position of director of professional services in 1995. It was, financially, a step back for Cumnock after his years of teaching at Lyon, but it wasn’t the money that mattered.
“My wife told me, ‘Your heart’s already out there [at the ranch], so you might as well take the body with it,’” Cumnock said.
Cumnock eventually was promoted to CEO and has watched as the ranch has changed over the years. It has gone from an asset value of around $1 million to around $30 million and has been home to more than 1,000 kids. Cumnock said the ranch helps children who have dealt with abuse for much longer than the children they had when the ranch first opened.
“The kids are a lot more damaged than they used to be,” Cumnock said.
Meth, Cumnock said, has become a word the staff hears daily as more parents are sent to treatment for the drug. But although the problems have changed, the way Cumnock and his staff treat the children hasn’t. They still strive to provide a safe environment where ranchers can have a childhood.
“I remember early on, one of the guys I was working with was asked where he would be if he hadn’t come to the ranch,” Cumnock said. “He said, ‘I was eating out of garbage cans and living on the street. If Mr. Mike hadn’t worked with me here, I wouldn’t be alive today.’”
As CEO, Cumnock has taken on an organizational and fundraising role at the ranch, along with providing occasional therapy treatment, but he still finds time each day to interact with the kids.
“If I’m at the ranch when they come in from school, they’ll seek me out just to say hello,” Cumnock said. “One kid today wanted to show me he’d found a turtle. I’m sort of the ranch granddad.”
When he retires at the end of 2013, it will be the kids that Cumnock misses most. It’s what brought him to the ranch in the first place and what he holds as most important.
“People would ask me, ‘How many kids would you have to save to make giving up a job as a professor worth it?’” Cumnock said. “My answer was always ‘one.’”
Cumnock said he doesn’t have any specific plans for retirement. He’s on staff as a permanent deacon at St. Mary’s in Batesville and works at two other churches in the area, which he plans to continue to do for many years. And he’ll be back to the ranch.
As Cumnock likes to say, the ranch isn’t about him. It’s about the children and the team of people who work to see them succeed. It’s something he tries to tell his staff as much as he can.
“I see myself as a servant-leader for the kids and for the staff,” Cumnock said. “My job is to make sure everybody gets what they need.”
After an email was sent to a Sheriffs’ Youth Ranches alumni Listserv to announce Cumnock’s retirement, even more letters and emails arrived.
“I don’t know what I would be like today if you hadn’t helped me get on the right path,” wrote a former rancher after hearing the news. “You have done your job well, which shaped the way the ranch is today: a place to call home.”
When Cumnock’s assistant told him the emails had been pouring in, he began reading, happy to see that so many of the children had moved on to successful lives.
“One, a successful teacher, wrote and said, ‘Mr. Mike gave me the most important thing I could ever have had: a good childhood,’” Cumnock said. “I just started crying. I’m not sure I’ll be able to read any more.”
Staff writer Emily Van Zandt can be reached at (501) 399-3688 or firstname.lastname@example.org.