The Arkansas Sheriffs' Youth Ranches are in the midst of a public information campaign designed to help the public understand the Ranch mission.
That means clearing up the common misconception that the Ranches exist for reform or rehabilitation of delinquent youth, according to Paul Swymn, director of the Hardy campus, one of five campuses in the state.
"The Ranch is not a boot camp or reform school," he said. "We're basically a children's home, although we're more therapeutic than a children's home."
Swymn is taking the message on the road, trying to speak to as many area churches and service organizations as possible.
To launch the campaign, Swymn and his wife, Kathy, were hosts to an open house at Harmon Hall on the Hardy campus May 15. The event was attended by about 15 area pastors and church leaders, as well as members of the campus board of visitors.
Swymn said the idea for the campaign came from the board of visitors, who were concerned about the perception that the Ranch is a correctional agency for youth.
Mike Cumnock, executive director of the Youth Ranches, also attended the open house. Cumnock said he frequently has to explain the Ranch mission.
"That's probably because the word 'Sheriff' is in the name," he said. "The bulk of the kids at the Ranch are kids that have had something happen to them, not the other way around."
Cumnock said even the youth are sometimes afraid when they first come to the Ranch, wondering why they are being punished.
Swymn said, "We try to create a family environment and help these kids to live in a family that is functional, as opposed to the dysfunctional families many of them come from."
Cumnock said some of the youths' parents are in jail. The father of a resident now at one of the campuses killed the boy's mother in front of him and is awaiting trial for murder, he said.
Services provided by the Ranch include counseling to help the children work through the traumatic experiences they have suffered. Others -- who have been abandoned or negected -- may not have suffered abuse, but they are not accustomed to any household rules or expectations.
"A lot of the kids we get are angry," Swymn said. "When someone tries to put them into a structure where they have to face consequences for their behavior, they rebel."
One responsiblity of house parents such as the Swymns is to help the children learn to resolve differences without anger or violence in an environment of love and acceptance. Swymn said many new residents have never before seen family conflicts resolved without violence.
Harman Hall currently has seven boys in residence. The children are given chores, such as caring for horses, to help them learn responsibility and dependability, Swymn said. The Highland School District provides a homework checklist for each child, and the Swymns help the children with their work as needed. The children at the Ranches also must attend church, but not necessarily the same church as the house parents.
The Youth Ranches were started in 1976 by the Arkansas Sheriffs Association. The main campus is at Bethesda, near Batesville, where four residence halls, two indendent living cottages for older residents, a chapel and other facilities sit on 528 acres along the White River.
The Hardy campus, bequethed to the Ranches by the late Frank Harmon, includes one residence hall, a meeting hall, a bunkhouse and horse barn on 94 acres between the Spring and South Fork rivers.
Newer campuses include the 157-acre DeGray campus on Degray Lake, the 265-acre Donald W. Reynolds campus at Mulberry and the 430-acre Harrison campus which does not yet house any residents but is used as a recreational facility.
Nearly all the funding (95 percent) for the Ranches comes from private donations.
Anyone interested in learning more about the mission of the Arkansas Sheriffs Youth Ranches or scheduling a speaker from the Ranches speakers bureau can call Swymn at 870-710-1262.