BETHESDA -- The Arkansas Sheriff's Youth Ranch sits on more than 500 acres in rural Independence County. There are barns and cottages, rolling pastures and a herd of Hereford cattle. There's a basketball court, goats and chickens.
It's easy to see why a group of lawmen in the mid-'70s saw this secluded, idyllic setting as a home for children who often came from places not nearly as peaceful.
"The sheriffs were really a front line of defense for kids," says Matt Cleveland, the ranch's chief developmental officer. "If a parent was deceased and they couldn't find a relative quickly, or if there was abuse or drugs in the home, they would take the kids out of the home, but they didn't know what to do with them."
Inspired by a similar program in Florida, the Arkansas Sheriff's Association in 1976 created the nongovernmental, privately run program for boys from all over the state. Since opening in 1977, the ranch, which operates mostly on donations, has been home to more than 2,050 boys and girls, known as ranchers.
It was first called the Arkansas Sheriffs' Boys Ranch Inc., but soon after became known as the Arkansas Sheriff's Youth Ranch (the name was changed legally in 1998). A girls' ranch near Harrison opened in 1977 and girls began staying at the Bethesda location around 1995.
"We've created a really stable environment. It's one of the things kids need most. With stability, and love and support, they thrive," Cleveland says while seated in a conference room at the ranch's Sturgis Building. It's an overcast afternoon in late March and he is joined by longtime ranch houseparent Cheyenne Ingram. They are part of the 23-member staff that keeps the ranch running and cares for its 36 current ranchers.
Some of the kids show up with not much more than the clothes on their backs, Ingram says. Through the ranch, they get regular meals, medical care, dental work and therapy. They are required to attend school and are tutored if needed.
"I can't tell you how many times I've heard, 'My mom never cared if I did my homework,'" she says.
The ranchers have daily chores and each Sunday they go to church.
They also just get to be kids -- riding their bikes, fishing, flying kites, participating in school activities and sports, playing with ranch animals and going to places like Chuck E. Cheese's in Jonesboro.
Houseparents live with up to eight ranchers in five cottages -- two for girls, three for boys. There are currently three husband-and-wife couples and two single women who work as houseparents, Cleveland says.
A FAMILY AFFAIR
Ingram, who cares for a cottage of boys ages 5-12, has been a houseparent for 34 years. Her husband, Rick, is the ranch's campus manager and helps Cheyenne with houseparent duties. Their daughter, Emily Ives, also works here and her husband, Philip, is the ranch's director of operations.
"We always wanted to work with kids," Ingram says. "This is our life."
The ranch is like kin, says Chief Executive Officer Nancy Fulton.
"We consider ourselves a large family," she says in her Sturgis Building office. "I grew up in Louisiana and a lot of times families all lived around their grandma. That's kind of how we see ourselves. Everybody knows all the other children and looks out for them."
Before coming to work here in 2013, Fulton, a licensed therapist and clinical social worker, would see children make progress in counseling only to have it undone at home: "We would make these wonderful gains in our offices or hospitals, but when they went home, because there was so much chaos and because of substance abuse or physical or sexual abuse or neglect, the children couldn't get healthy and stay healthy."
Here, Fulton says, "they're in a safe surrounding and are in loving, supportive homes with supportive adults, where they get their physical, mental, educational and spiritual needs met."
THE WRIGHT BROTHERS
In the beginning there were the Wright brothers.
Roger Wright was 7 in 1977 when he and his 6-year-old brother, Ralph, went to live at the ranch.
"I was the first rancher," Roger Wright says. "We got there before they opened the first house."
They lived in one of two mobile homes on the property as housing was constructed.
"I saw it get built from the ground up," he says, "and helped build it."
Wright and his brother were taken from their home in Augusta after their father was placed in a nursing home and their mother was negligent. She visited them at the ranch once, he says, and never returned.
"There were more rules," Wright says of his first impression of ranch life. "Part of the reason my brother and I went there was because we didn't have much paternal leadership that gave us rules and cared about us that much. Now there was bedtime and mealtime, there were chores to be done and things like that."
And as more kids showed up, he realized he wasn't alone: "It took a little time to get accustomed to it, but then the next set of kids came and it was more like, 'Hey, there are other kids like me.' Soon you have more brothers and you've got ... other brothers living in the house with you. It was one big family."
Wright, 48, stayed until he graduated high school in 1988. He attended the University of Missouri at Columbia, becoming the ranch's first college graduate, and now helps design business and software solutions as staff architect at Tyson Foods in Springdale. He and his wife have two children.
He's also is the first former resident to sit on the board of the ranch.
"I'm the first from the ranch in a lot of things," he says with a chuckle.
SISTERS PLACED AT RANCH
Llahoma Jackson was 14 in February 1998 when she and her younger sister, Caffe, moved to the ranch. Their home life had deteriorated after their parents' divorce and, living with their mother and her new husband, drugs and abuse were a constant.
Their mother brought them from California and dropped them off in Conway with a number for a taxi and an address where she thought their father lived. It was the last time she'd ever see her mother, who died when Jackson was 25.
Not equipped to raise two girls, her father found a place for Jackson and her sister at the ranch.
"He thought sending us there would be the best thing for us -- and it was," she says.
Though leery and distrustful at first, Jackson, who is now 34, flourished at the ranch, where she lived until graduating from Batesville High School; her sister stayed on at the ranch a couple of years after graduation.
"I really consider myself blessed to have the houseparents I did," Jackson says. "My mother wasn't very nurturing, obviously, and having gone through abuse, having them there really helped me. I was able to bond and build trust. They were a very authentic couple."
She also got counseling.
"My therapist was the one who said 'You've got potential, Llahoma. You can do this.' He was always encouraging me. I became much more confident. I knew I wasn't a bad person or a bad kid."
In high school she was active in school clubs, choir and theater, took classes at Lyon College and graduated with honors while also holding down part-time jobs, including one as a waitress at Salter's Scenic View restaurant in Southside.
She attended Henderson State University on a full scholarship and now lives in North Little Rock with her 6-year-old daughter.
Jackson's professional life has been spent mostly with nonprofits, and she is the regional philanthropy officer with the American Red Cross. She and her father, who lives in Wisconsin, have a close relationship now, and her daughter spends time with him and his wife every summer.
"It was such a tight-knit family," she says of her time at the ranch. "When they call it 'a place to call home,' it really is a home. It was a nurturing experience, and everybody there wanted the best for us."
RANCH IS LICENSED
The ranch is licensed by the Division of Children and Family Services, which is part of the Arkansas Department of Human Services. Children ages 6-17 are referred by family members, law enforcement officials, school officials and even through word of mouth. An application for admission is available at youthranches.com.
"There are lots of reasons," a child comes here, Ingram says. "Drug use in the family, neglect. Sometimes grandparents are trying to raise kids that their kids can't raise. We also have children with deceased parents and no other family."
If space is open, applicants go through an interview process to see if they will be a good fit or if they need to be placed elsewhere.
Cleveland says, "We find out as much history as we can,", adding that about 75 percent of children are here with one or more siblings. "There are programs that are better for kids who have severe emotional issues or who have severe disciplinary issues. Some kids go to places that are a lot more restrictive than the ranch."
Ranchers who have graduated high school are allowed to live on campus until they are 21, if they are going to college or working.
Brandon Solis in an 18-year-old from Fort Smith who has been at the ranch about four years and is now enrolled at the University of Arkansas Community College at Batesville.
"Right now I'm just getting my basic classes in," he says. "I'm not sure what I want to study."
Solis, who has a 16-year-old sister and a 12-year-old brother at the ranch, says he plans to stay until he's 21.
"That's my goal now," he says. "I feel good here. It's a good place to be."
90% FROM DONATIONS
Running the ranch costs about $2 million a year, Cleveland says, and more than 90 percent of that comes from donations.
At one time there were campuses at other sites across the state, but the 2008 recession and a drop in donations forced the program to consolidate back to the original site.
The Children's Award Dinner, held each October in Little Rock, is the organization's annual fundraiser and former Gov. Mike Beebe is master of ceremonies. There are also other fundraisers throughout the year. In 2017, more than 1,000 people paid to visit a pumpkin patch at the ranch. Cleveland says there are plans for an even bigger pumpkin patch this year, and a permanent petting zoo is in the works.
And speaking of working, this is an actual cattle ranch, with about 100 head of registered Hereford cattle that the children help maintain.
As for the future, Fulton wants to bring in "tiny houses" so older ranchers like Solis can move out of their cottages but remain on the ranch.
"We want to add a tiny house village where we're fostering their independence and yet they still have a safety net," she says.
And she'd also like to serve more children while maintaining the ranch's vibe: "We don't want to get to a point where we lose our family atmosphere and become too much of an institution."
J.C. (left) and Robert check out the goats in a pen behind the cottage where the boys live at the Arkansas Sheriff’s Youth Ranch in Independence County. Last names of ranchers pictured are withheld by ranch officials to protect their privacy.
Style on 05/08/2018
Print Headline: Home on the range; For 41 years, the Arkansas Sheriff’s Youth Ranch has taken children with nowhere to go and turned them into productive adults