SAFETY HARBOR – CSA Palm Harbor Parks and Recreation hosted the North Pinellas Community Prayer Breakfast on Oct. 26 at the Florida Sheriff’s Youth Ranch, located at 3180 Enterprise Road E., in Safety Harbor.
“We were honored to host the first of hopefully many prayer breakfasts there,” said Julie Peluso, who was on the prayer breakfast board.
First Watch, Another Broken Egg, Tiffany’s Family Restaurant and other local establishments pitched in to help with the breakfast. Volunteers from Safety Harbor Rotary came in at sunrise to start cooking pancakes, and CSA Palm Harbor Director Erika Lynford cooked close to 400 eggs, Peluso said.
Bay News 9 Meteorologist Josh Linker served as the master of ceremonies, and special guest Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri spoke.
“I’m so grateful to be part of this community,” Peluso said.
The prayer breakfast group is organized by volunteers in the north Pinellas community and they pick an organization to sponsor each year, including Citizens Alliance for Progress in Tarpon Springs and F.E.A.S.T in Palm Harbor in the past.
The breakfast this year was themed “Kindness with a Purpose,” aimed at raising awareness about the Sheriff’s ranch.
“I’ve been here since 1975, and I thought it was for kids that were in trouble,” Peluso said.
What she learned in working with the ranch changed her mind completely.
“We are a charity that was founded by the sheriffs in 1957,” said Chuck Deitch, youth ranch vice president of residential programming. “A lot of people think we’re a boot camp or detention center. That couldn’t be further from the truth.”
The ranch focuses on sibling groups of at-risk kids, who have been removed from their homes or have lost their natural parents with nowhere else to go beside foster care.
“A sibling group of five is not uncommon,” Deitch said.
The ranch brings in these children and hires married couples who live in the homes on the ranch property and raise up to 10 kids at a time.
They grow up on the 20-acre property where there are six homes: three for staff members.
While on ranch property, kids are taught to drive, join soccer teams, go to school and do homework at home. Staff help the children get jobs when they are ready to work.
A visitor to the ranch would see kids riding bikes, playing soccer, skateboarding or playing on the playground.
“We set them up to beat the statistics,” Deitch said, which are startling.
Only 3 percent of children in foster homes will get a college degree, 50 percent will get a high school diploma, close to 50 percent will end up homeless and they are four times more likely to commit suicide, Deitch said.
There are currently about 30 children at the Safety Harbor location, and that number varies at their other locations in Bartow, Live Oak, Barberville, Bradenton and Yankeetown.
Deitch said he wished they could take down their sign and just be regular neighborhood at times. People often see the word “sheriff” and get the wrong impression. For people that do visit, Deitch said they often say, “I didn’t know what a foster kid looked like.”
“It’s not like Annie,” Deitch said. “Our kids are unfairly labeled without people knowing who they are.”
To stay afloat, Deitch said the ranches rely on the community’s help. They get a “very little bit” from the Department of Children and Families, but they raise close to 80 percent of the between $14 and $17 million they need on their own.
“We really exist with people giving us goods they don’t use anymore,” Deitch said.
They also rely on people with talent – musicians, tutors, and artists – to come in and provide support and entertainment for the kids.
“The community keeps asking us, ‘what do you need?’” Deitch said.
Peluso also released, with the flier for the prayer breakfast, a “wish list” from the ranch, filled with items they need.
After the prayer breakfast, visitors were invited to walk around the property and see where the kids live, and learn what the ranch does.
“We’re grateful and honored to be able to help out,” Peluso said.
The best way to help out, Deitch said, is to call the campus main office at 727-725-4761 or stop by.
“We are an open operation,” Deitch said.