The Arkansas Sheriffs Youth Ranches are not boot camps. And they are not reform schools.
There. That clears that up.
Too bad it's not that easy. No matter how many times the mission of the Ranches is repeated, the perception lingers that they are homes for wayward youth.
The Ranches' mission statement is: "To address, remedy, and prevent child abuse and neglect by creating safe, healthy, and permanent homes for children."
Apparently it is the word "sheriffs" in the name that leads people to think the Ranches are home for delinquents.
You know that perception is strong when an older youth at the Hardy campus recounts the story of how, when a school counselor first talked to him about living at the Ranch, he was frightened and wondered what he had done wrong. And this is the reaction many have toward the children from the Ranches, whose only crime was being born into unfortunate circumstances.
Mike Cumnock, director of the Ranches, summarizes: "The Ranches are not for kids who have done something to someone else but for kids who have had someone else do something to them."
The Ranches' central purpose is to serve children who have been abused, neglected and abandoned. Not every resident child fits this profile; some are there because of other special circumstances that make it impossible for them to live at home. But abused, neglected and abandoned children are the reason the Ranches exist.
Paul Swymn, who operates the Hardy campus (one of five campuses in the state) with his wife, Kathy, says the best comparison is a foster home. A foster home with 350 children. That's the number of kids who have lived in one of the Ranch homes since the agency was founded in 1976.
To combat the lingering misconception about the Ranches, the Swymns held an open house May 15 at the Hardy campus, which occupies the beautiful pasture and wooded hillside that fills your view across the Spring River from the Biggers Bluff lookout. The purpose of the open house was to give area ministers and church leaders an opportunity to see the Ranch close up and better understand its mission.
The Youth Ranches were started by the Arkansas Sheriffs Association, and the association remains a strong supporter. Because of this, the word Sheriffs remains in the name. But to erase the common misconception, the Ranches' logo now emphasizes "Youth Ranches," while reducing "Arkansas Sheriffs."
Which also brings up another misconception. The mission of law enforcement agencies is not to catch and punish, but to protect and serve. Nothing better demonstrates this than the existence of the Arkansas Sheriffs Youth Ranches.