North Ala. boys ranch, like its youth, needs help

DANVILLE, Ala. – Hillsboro resident John Howard is almost certain he would be homeless or in jail if he had not lived at the Alabama Sheriffs’ Youth Ranch in Danville.
Howard, 42, spent about 10 years there until 1987 when he graduated from Danville High School. He is a NASA contract computer operator at Redstone Arsenal.
“It’s not like we were bad kids, but when you don’t have any kind of direction, you Built in the 1970s, the ranch once thrived with more than 30 boys and a working farm.
Now, buildings need remodeling and the program needs expanding, said Jerry Neal, ranch director.
Neal, 54, started work about three months ago. He said the challenge brought him to Danville from his former job running a girls ranch in Martinsville, Va.
“I like to help get programs started – or get them back to the prosperity they have had in the past,” he said. “I’d like to get more programs, so I can take tougher children.”
Neal hopes to renew public interest in an effort to restore the ranch and offset what he estimates is a 30 percent decline in contributions due to the recession. The ranch depends on donations.
Years ago, the community was involved in the Boys Ranch, said Morgan County Sheriff Greg Bartlett, a board member. He is encouraging public involvement in restoring the ranch and in Neal’s vision.
Former Decatur Mayor Lynn Fowler, a member of the Kiwanis Club of Decatur, said the majority of money the club raised at its annual Pancake Day once went to the ranch, but the amount declined over the years as did the number of boys housed.
Eight years ago, only six or seven boys lived at the ranch, Bartlett said.
“We certainly don’t support it to the level that we used to, and it’s a shame, because I The Kiwanis Club still holds an annual Christmas program for boys.
Neal said more programs would allow the ranch to take boys who require more than the basic care provided. He wants to eventually build a school for boys who can’t attend traditional classes because of behavioral problems, restart a weekly church service at the ranch chapel and start sports teams.
Gym repairs will allow boys to play basketball and help them learn social skills such as teamwork, Neal said.
The gym has holes in the roof insulation because trees grew into the building, he said. Volunteers plan to work on patching the roof.
Twenty-one boys live eight or 10 to a house with one male and one female houseparent. The facility accepts boys 8 to 17 years of age.
Neal said the average age of a boy entering the ranch is 15. While younger children are more likely to be in foster care, some people don’t want teenagers because of the misconception that older children are too far gone, Neal said.
Ranch staff members try to make life normal. Boys who make good grades and do chores may date with the approval of social workers, and go out at night with friends.
The curfew is 11:30 p.m. or midnight, and also fluctuates depending on school grades, Neal said.
The boys are enrolled in Danville schools and attend services at local churches.
Alabama sheriffs founded the Youth Ranch Program in the 1960s for needy, abused and neglected children.
Lawrence County Sheriff Gene Mitchell said a majority of the boys who live at the ranches become productive citizens.
“We don’t really have an alternative that matches what they do, and we’re very fortunate to have it.”
Howard said living at the ranch was the best alternative for him and his four brothers. They were living in poverty in their mother’s custody. At the ranch, they had new clothes, ate three meals a day, attended church services and received an allowance.
“We Eddie Ruppe, 43, who now lives in Henry County, Ga., credited former ranch director Bobby Joe Smith with raising him and instilling Christian values. Smith, now a director with the Alabama Baptist Children’s Home in Mobile, was the director of the ranch from the time it opened until about 1990, Ruppe said.
Ruppe lived at the ranch from 1976 to 1986. He owns his own business pressure-washing commercial buildings.
The ranch “built” men from boys through firm but fair discipline and by teaching responsibility with farm work, Ruppe said. Ranch boys had to keep their hair short and shirts tucked in, and were model students, he said.
“It made a lot of difference in my life as a young boy,” he said. “You were taught to set goals, and you went after those goals.”

Nancy Glasscock/The Decatur Daily