SAFETY HARBOR — More than 250 people, including state and local lawmakers, business owners, and supporters of bay area nonprofit organizations, gathered outside the Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranch facility in Safety Harbor on May 19 for the inaugural Breakfast at the Ranch fundraiser. 

The event, organized by former Palm Harbor Fire Commissioner Julie Peluso, was attended by Florida Sen. Ed Hooper, Pinellas County Commissioner Dave Eggers, State Rep. Chris Latvala, Safety Harbor commissioners Nancy Besore and Cliff Merz, and Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, among others. The 90-minute breakfast was emceed by local author and philanthropist Kari Wagner and featured Lauren Dungy, wife of Tony Dungy and mother of 11 children and two foster children, as the keynote speaker.

In her opening remarks, Wagner spoke about the “silent crisis” affecting foster programs as funding has dried up, stating “places like the Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranch are critical to the health and welfare of our kids.” She noted 2022 marks the 65th anniversary of the now 22-acre facility on Enterprise Road, which was established in 1957 by a group of local sheriffs looking for a place to help provide for kids in need.

“A handful of sheriffs got together to solve a problem and look at what they’ve done,” Wagner said, noting the ranch has helped more than 175,000 kids over the years. “We need more programs like this.”

According to Scott Halbach, the facility’s community development director, the ranch serves as “a safe haven for trauma-affected children ages 3-18, and it’s a calling for the house parents to raise them” while noting sibling groups are typically raised together by full-time house parents and live in cottages on site.

Dungy, who along with her football-famous husband adopted eight children and fostered two, spoke about their experience with the foster care system, explaining how two years ago the couple did a PSA for the Hillsborough County foster care system, “and we were presented with a lot of statistics that were disturbing.” She said they “were really saddened to hear that kids were coming into the system at least two a day, and there was definitely a shortage of foster parents, and the system was overloaded, the workers were overwhelmed.”

Dungy said that “after making the PSA, we started thinking about the kids, children who no fault of their own have been subjected to challenging conditions,” and they decided to help. “Tony and I had a decision to make. We saw a tremendous need in our community, we knew that God had instructed us as Christians we have an obligation to help others in need, and we had to do something. We had to respond to the call.” 

Despite leading a busy life, with 11 kids and Tony traveling for his job as a football analyst, Lauren Dungy said they enrolled in the foster care certification classes, and as soon as they completed the course, they received a call. 

“The day that we finished the last class our phone rang, and we received a child who had been in a terrible situation at home,” she said, “and we took little Messiah in. … That’s how this uncommon foster care journey started for us.” Dungy acknowledged their life can be very chaotic, with toys strewn across the yard and running from one after school activity to another, but in wrapping up her speech, she challenged the audience members to “be uncommon,” noting, “I realize not everyone here can adopt a child, and not everyone can even do fostering. But there are many ways that you can help right here,” including providing financial resources, house parents, and prayers. 

“We, as Christians, know prayer works,” she said. 

Following Dungy’s speech, 18-year-old Shia stepped to the podium. After a video played depicting Shia’s journey from being a homeless kid to a responsible young man and mentor at the ranch, Jim Previtera, a FSYR board member who serves as the director of security for the Tampa Bay Rays, presented Shia with an autographed Bucs football, an autographed Rays baseball and an invitation for Shia and a group of ranchers to attend a Rays game in a suite at Tropicana Field. 

The gesture brought a huge smile to Shia’s face and a few tears to others gathered under the tent. 

Afterward, as she was being inundated with congrats and photo requests, Dungy took a minute to speak about the work being done at the Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranch with kids like Shia.

“It’s just beautiful to see an organization like this reach out to the children in need and provide a safe environment where they can thrive and live like normal children do,” she said, adding Shia’s story was proof the ranch “is changing lives, and we see that happening right in front of us. And if we would all just take that step and contribute and pour into these kids and invest in them, what a difference it would make.”

For more information on the Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches, visit youthranches.org.