It was hard to find a dry eye in the Ash Flat Church of Christ the night of Feb. 12, as the community gathered to say goodbye to the boys of the Hardy Youth Ranch and their house parents.
Paul and Kathy Swymn have been counselors and house parents at the Hardy ranch for 12 years. "It's like tearing a family apart," Kathy said as she wiped tears from her cheeks. "It's been hard."
Kathy said she and Paul were made aware of the decision to close the ranch the first week of February. "We couldn't tell anyone until the boys found out," she said. The boys were relocated to the Batesville ranch Feb. 14.
The Arkansas Sheriffs' Youth Ranches were started in 1976 by a group of sheriffs who saw first hand the effect abuse and neglect were having on children. By offering the children a structured life, with the love they deserved, they have give many children a second chance.
After the children are accepted by the ranch, they are assigned to a location and house parents. The Hardy location only had one set of house parents, Paul and Kathy, who have been there since 1997.
The parents are responsible for setting an example while showing the children love and support. They work with the boys to instill values in them that they can use in their future.
The boys at the ranch are required to attend school, do chores and go to church. The ranch has cattle and horses both of which the boys learn to take care of and help with.
"Most of the time the boys don't want to be there at first," Paul said. "But they grow into it, they start to gain self respect as their grades go from F to A and B."
The Swymns have impacted several lives throughout their years in this line of work. Even after they grow up and move on several of the boys still stay in touch with Paul and Kathy. Paul said one of his former boys is in the military and when he got back from Iraq he came to visit.
"When I first started this I thought I was really going to do the kids a big service," Paul said. "But I have found that they have done a lot more for me, it is as rewarding for me as it is for them."
"We (the community) have watched them (the Swymns) since they started," Vicky Gallow, a community member said. "We (the community) got involved and made a commitment to support it (the ranch)."
The support the community showed, during the going away party at the church, exemplifies the impact the ranch and its residents have made in the area.
Fellow congregation members, teachers, classmates and several others gathered to say goodbye. As the boys and the Swymns hugged and cried with several people it became apparent how much the ranch has meant to so many people.
"They have lifted us as much as we have lifted them," Gallow said. "For years we (the community) have had these boys, they are our boys."
Binders were made for each of the boys, and during the going away party, those who attended wrote messages in them. The boys were given the binders to take to their new homes with them.
Belinda Hill, a teacher at Highland, said she has taught several of the boys from the ranch. "They (the Swymns) never missed a parent teacher conference, any time I called they were there," she said. "They always attended the boys' activities -- band, sports, it didn't matter they supported them."
"They gave them stability, support and love," Gallow said. "I would see them out together and they were just like a family; close, loving and always smiling."
So, what could have made the board decide to eliminate the Hardy campus? Money. The board had to balance their budget and because the Hardy campus is the smallest of the ranches it made it more efficient to eliminate it during the financial crisis.
"We are 95 percent privately funded and we depend on that," Public Relations worker Judy Dahlquist said. "The tough economic conditions have required us to cut back by 25 percent." She said the ranch had to lay some employees off.
"Our mission at the Arkansas Sheriffs' Youth Ranch is to provide every child in need with a quality home environment and the best healthcare available," a spokesman for the ranch, Kyle Riley said. "Unfortunately, just as with many businesses throughout the country, we too are feeling the effects of these tough economic times."
Riley said four of the children will be moved to two homes at the Batesville facility.
As for the fifth, Mac, arrangements are being made. They are trying to make it possible for him to stay in Highland and finish his senior year.
Mac accepted a scholarship to play football at Ouachita Baptist in the fall. He had been at the ranch with the Swymns for five years.
"They, along with all of the other 61 children who currently call the ranch home, will continue to receive the best care available," Riley said.
According to Riley, the decision was strategically made to impact as few lives as possible. He said it costs approximately $26,300 to care for a child each year.
Dahlquist said the boys will receive the same counseling and she thinks the transition will go okay. While Paul and Kathy are heartbroken over the situation Paul was able to put the situation into a realistic perspective.
He said most nonprofit organizations run in the red for periods at a time and then something comes along and balances them out. According to Paul, this is how the ranch has run for several years, but he feels the board felt more pressure to balance their budget quickly with the failing economy.
"Its just the fact of life -- how many people out there have been laid off?" Paul said. "It's just that our profession happens to have children involved which makes it a little harder."
Dahlaquist said the ranch will continue to be used for recreational purposes with the horses and cattle. And she doesn't know when or if the campus would be reopened for housing.
It is the hopes of many that the organization will change their minds, or quickly return the boys to the Swymns in Hardy. Many of the community members have sent letters and made phone calls in an attempt to keep the boys in Hardy.
"The Hardy community has always been kind to the ranch," Riley said. "And we want to thank them for their continued support and helping raise some outstanding citizens."
Gallow said she wishes the community would have been made aware that the ranch was in financial trouble. "I know there are people who would help support it," she said. "This is more than just a business, these are lives."