Arriving at the HOPE Youth Ranch — with its canopy of majestic oaks, horses grazing behind wood fences and nothing but the sounds of nature — the first impression is tranquility. "Everyone says there's such peace here, but we know it's God's presence," said Ampy Suarez, program director for the ranch, just south of the Hernando-Pasco county line.
The impression is intentional. As founders of the faith-based residential group home, Suarez and her husband, the Rev. Jose Suarez, hope to convey a feeling of peace and hope to girls who have known none as they arrive for nine to 12 months of rehabilitation therapy.
The "hope" in the ranch's name stands for Helping Overcome Past Experiences. That is the goal.
After their involvement with feeding homeless people a number of years ago, the couple discovered that the homeless often had once been children who never had the opportunity to heal from the scars of abuse. That led the two to become part of the state's foster care program.
"God placed a desire in our hearts to help keep foster children from joining the ranks of the homeless by addressing the hurt as soon as possible," Suarez said.
Over a period of three years, the couple, who have three daughters of their own, opened their home to more than 20 foster children.
But the need they saw was greater.
So, relying on their faith and private donations, the Suarezes set about finding a way to help more girls.
The goal was to offer loving, faith-based therapeutic foster care in a serene residential setting to girls ages 10 to 16 in the Tampa Bay area whose parents or foster parents found them unmanageable. Many of the girls were dealing with a number of issues, such as running away, anorexia, bulimia, cutting themselves, depression, isolation, poor social skills, low self-esteem, sexual acting out and anger issues.
After finding a 9-acre ranch with a large house, a barn and stables in Hudson that provided the atmosphere they were seeking, and hiring professionals to staff it, HOPE Youth Ranch opened in April 2004. That August, they welcomed their first six residents.
Today, the Suarezes, who live in New Port Richey, operate the campus on East Road and an off-site home in Spring Hill — each currently housing and rehabilitating six girls.
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The ranch is licensed by the Florida Department of Children and Families. Teens in foster care are placed there through referrals by agencies under the DCF, which helps with day-to-day costs. Parents who have heard about the ranch also seek help for their troubled children. One current resident was referred by a parent from Michigan.
"We offer counseling first," Suarez said. "That's how we begin. Parents call, and we put the kids in individual and family outpatient therapy. The last resort is to place them out of the home in a program. If we see there's a need to have a break from the family, to have some more intensive intervention, that's when we recommend residential therapy."
Character building in the girls — through projects like feeding the homeless — spiritual growth, academic achievement and counseling are the areas of concentration for the 13 staff members.
Two of the staffers, a husband and wife, live with the girls in a home-like environment and serve as behavior coaches while offering the girls encouragement, discipline and a shoulder to lean on.
The large campus has ample areas for physical activities, including a swimming pool, and houses a stable-barn and paddocks for six horses.
An important part of the program is equine-assisted therapy. Participants learn about themselves and others by participating in activities with horses and then process and discuss feelings, behaviors and patterns.
Each girl is assigned to care for one of the horses — feeding, grooming and cleaning up after it. If the girls meet their behavior performance goals, they are permitted to ride the horses. The same is true if the students at the on-campus school meet their academic goals.
Twelve-year-old Lizzie is a new arrival at the ranch who seems excited to be there. On a recent Wednesday, she was eager to show a visitor her horse, a paint named Splash.
"This Friday, I'll be able to ride," Lizzie said.
She revealed a smile as she announced her achievement.
"The behavior coaches always tell me to smile and keep my head up," Lizzie said.
Helping the girls move forward is the crux of what Suarez hopes to achieve.
"Our purpose is to provide a place where teens can begin to focus on what the future holds for them rather than what the past has been," she said. We are a faith-based Christian program and, to us, hope begins with a relationship with Jesus Christ. Hope is nurtured through forgiveness, and once a child learns to forgive, then they start setting their hearts on the future rather than the past."
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Since its inception, HOPE Youth Ranch has enjoyed success, helping 70 girls assume a normal life.
"It's estimated that the national average for success in our type of setting is 15 to 25 percent," Suarez said. "Our success rate has ranged from 75 to 90 percent."
Along with the therapy that is provided, remedial education is offered through the HOPE Ranch Learning Academy, a state-registered private school focusing on children with learning difficulties that opened in 2005.
For the first 90 days, all residents attend the school. Then they are re-evaluated.
"If they're not doing well in therapy, they stay in our school," Suarez said. "If they're able to succeed, we place them back in regular public school. That way we are teaching them to live within what they're really going back to."
Twenty students are enrolled for the fall semester — about four residents of the ranch and the rest from the community.
Now, Suarez says, HOPE is beginning a new phase of its ministry.
"Over the past four years, through a combination of learning and counseling, we have seen our teens advance two to four grade levels in an academic year. With the success demonstrated by our teens attending our private school, we have been asked (by parents in the community and the Harbor of Brooksville) to open the school to children from the community with learning disabilities."
The ranch is in the process of raising money to build a new school that will accommodate up to 50 nonresident students, both boys and girls, for daytime classes.
The majority of them will be from Hernando and Pasco counties.
"The school has a behavior specialist on staff who will focus on implementing an individualized education plan for each student, working along with the teachers, tutors, parents and volunteers," Suarez said. "Our intent is for the parents to have minimal to no out-of-pocket expense through the (state-sponsored) McKay Scholarship program."
Suarez estimates the cost of the new building at about $200,000. Dr. and Mrs. James P. Gills are helping with the funding.
"They're going to do matching funds for all the donations made to the new building," Suarez said.
Lew Friedland, who serves as president of the Gills' foundations and the company that manages their holdings, Jireh Inc., said the Gillses have a history of charity work in the region and noted that they have helped build five YMCAs in the Tampa Bay area.
"They do a lot of work with missionaries and Christian organizations and churches," Friedland said. "I believe (their desire to help the ranch) is due to the religious basis of their operation there as well as the fact that they're helping children."
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Some girls have lived at the ranch for as long as three years. Ultimately, Suarez wants them to be part of a family.
"The goal is to reunite them with their parents or help them work through an adoption," she said, "or going on to independent living in a regular foster home."
Suarez has numerous testimonies written by the girls who have been helped by the program since 2004.
"When you guys pray for me, I feel taller," says one. "I'd be dead if I hadn't come here," says another.
A young woman with the initials A.R. summed up many of the thoughts expressed by the girls:
"I was in a pit that I couldn't get out of by myself," she wrote. "At HOPE Youth Ranch I learned that God wanted to help me climb out, and together we did it."
Suarez hopes to continue the school's success with the larger challenge of accepting students from the community.
"It works," she said. "What works for our kids here will work for the kids in the community, too."