On a 129-acre secluded ranch in Frederick County, for the past 36 years, at-risk boys have had the chance to turn their lives around.
After serving hundreds of boys from across the state, the Maryland Sheriffs’ Youth Ranch announced Saturday it will shut its doors on June 19.
The nonprofit group home has struggled in the last eight years as the state reduced its reliance on out-of-home care and has provided less funding, said Mark Grover, the ranch’s executive director. The organization will close its residential program but will continue to operate and find a new way to serve children or families, Grover said.
The ranch takes in boys ages 10 to 18, from detention centers or group homes in the state’s departments of juvenile or social services programs, as a transition to in-home care. It opened in Western Maryland in 1974 through the support of Maryland sheriffs and moved to its current location, on Fingerboard Road, in 1979.
The nine boys living on the ranch will receive a new placement, and about 90 percent of youth ranch staff will lose their jobs, Grover said.
No group home in the state was doing what the ranch was doing, which was providing housing, care, therapy, education, guidance, recreation, and health and mental wellness in what Grover describes as an “odd, weird and wonderful” way.
“It’s tough” to close, Grover said. “The thing is, what’s best for the kids?”
Longtime staff and volunteers were saddened to hear the ranch is closing, Grover said, but many said they understood and would be happy to help with the organization’s new work.
Arn Bjorndal, of Frederick, said he is brokenhearted to hear the news. He has been conducting Bible study at the ranch since 1992 through his job at Youth for Christ.
“I love those kids. ... I wish there was a way to continue,” he said.
It is sad to see the ranch close, said David Ochoa, president of the ranch’s board of directors and pastor of Calvary Chapel Frederick, which has hosted services at the ranch for the last nine years.
“To think of the history they have had of reaching so many throughout the years,” he said.
The ranch’s closing comes after the state has shifted its direction in the way it provides services to at-risk youth, Grover said.
The state announced in July 2007 its Place Matters initiative, focused on children in homes with wrap-around services. Since, the number of children placed in group homes has been cut by two-thirds, according to a youth ranch news release.
The ranch’s 28 beds were once full, and since the state announced its change in direction, the number has been declining, Grover said.
The organization receives most of its funding from the state, and the rest from donations. In the last eight years, the state cut its funding by 6 percent and froze rate increases that used to recognize cost-of-living adjustments, Grover said.
In 2011, the organization received $810,913 in grants and had a total budget of $935,240. In 2013, the organization received $696,094 in grants and had a total budget of $751,296, according to tax documents.
The organization had $2.9 million in assets as of 2013. The board of directors decided to close the residential program now, while it is still in a good position, Grover said.
Now that the ranch is closing, the organization will no longer receive state funding, Ochoa said.
‘Like a home’
The boys were each at the ranch for different amounts of time, depending on their situation, and each worked to make progress in an individual behavioral program, Grover said.
“It runs a lot like a home,” he said. “Part of our motto is, ‘What would you do with your kid?’”
The boys would change as they worked, went to school and realized they were part of a community, Grover said.
The boys received disciplined, normal care that is sometimes lacking in a private home, Bjorndal said.
“This is an opportunity to, in some cases, turn their life around and become someone amazing,” he said.
Great transformations happen on the ranch, he said.
During the holiday season, each child would be “adopted,” and someone from the community would buy them items from a wish list.
Bjorndal said he will always remember one boy who didn’t want to open his gifts, and when he did, his friends made fun of him because he had asked for a Barbie doll and pots and pans.
“He said, ‘I got this for my family, they could never have a Christmas like this.’ ... I was just bawling. I told him I was extremely proud of him,” Bjorndal said.
The board has been talking about the possibility of closing the ranch for two or three years, Ochoa said, knowing they could help the community more in a different way. That could include assisting other organization, or partnering with families, he said.
“We want to continue to reach youth in our community, and to do that in the best way possible,” Ochoa said. “I think there are a number of options that could be real positive.”
From his time spent on the ranch, Grover said he thinks helping families is the way to go. It is important to reach children when they are young, he said.
“I think early intervention is the best intervention,” he said.
The ranch could not have done what it did without the community, Grover said. He thanked the community, staff and board of directors for all they have done.
“And thanks to the kids,” Grover said. “It’s been a lot of fun.”