By Gretchen Sauerman
Melbourne Police Officer Frank Carter remembers when a 14-year-old girl was brought to Hacienda Girls ranch after a long and harrowing journey.
"She had been transferred 43 times (in the foster care system) before she ended up at Hacienda," said Officer Carter. "Just imagine 43 transfers - 43 (changes in) schools, classmates and friends."
After moving to the ranch, the teen lived there until she graduated at age 18.
Hacienda Girls Ranch is a group home and emergency shelter for girls ages 12-18. The ranch is part of the Brevard Division of the Children's Home Society.
The ranch strives to provide a secure environment for 45 girls who have been removed from unstable family situations.
Instead of an institutional facility, the girls live in ranch-style homes on a 25-arce campus in Melbourne.
While the ranch receives funding from Community Based Care of Brevard, the United Way and the Florida Department of Health, individual contributions are also important. Most grant dollars must be used for specific purposes, such as food or case management.
"Unrestricted dollars are very valuable to us," said Teresa Miles, executive director for Children's Home Society. "If we have a girl come here in the middle of the night, we can purchase a stuffed animal or pajamas for her."
The program's leaders use some of the individual donations for items many children take for granted.
"We have children in here who have never had a birthday cake," said Ms. Miles.
The Hacienda House is part of the "Continuum of Care" programs offered by Children's Home Society.
At one end of the continuum, the Healthy Start program is aimed at reducing infant mortality by providing education and medical care to pregnant women, and helps new mothers with lactation and nutritional support.
As children grow, case managers help families with emotionally disturbed children and offer parental guidance when children are at risk.
If children need to be removed from their home, the Hacienda Girls Ranch and foster care programs provide temporary and long-term shelter.
When re-unification with family is not a possibility, some children will be placed in the adoption program.
Hacienda's program is different from traditional foster care because the girls live in a group care setting and learn independent living skills.
"Clinicians work with the girls," said Ms. Miles. "The staff and structure of the home teaches behavior management.
"With a lot of our girls, it's appropriate to begin teaching them independent living skills at an early age."
Community volunteers and a board of directors support the ranch with fundraising and facility improvement projects.
Recently, volunteers constructed a walking trail at the ranch, to encourage the girls to be more active.
"Many of our children have weight issues," said Ms. Miles. "We believe in focusing on them as complete individuals who need to be healthy."
Volunteers also help mentor children and provide positive adult role models.
"People don't want to adopt kids aged 14 to 17," said Officer Carter. "I mentor a child named Jesse. I take him to Orlando Magic games and help him with school."
Many local businesses and civic organizations support the Children's Home Society as well. The Brevard Cultural Alliance supports the Hacienda Girls Ranch, providing fine arts experts to work with the girls.
"We send dancers and visual artists in weekly," said Alice Landry, arts and education coordinator for Brevard Cultural Alliance. "They spend about an hour and a half at each of the houses."
An exhibit of some of the artwork created by the girls is on display at the Government Center in Viera, in Building C, outside of the Space Coast Room.
"It's a good outlet for the girls," said Ms. Landry. "We call it art therapy."
Community leaders and Children's Home Society staff encourage individuals to get involved with the program, either by mentoring, volunteering, or donating to the organization.
"These programs for our children are needed so much," said Brevard County Commissioner Helen Voltz. "If we don't take care of them at that age, we've lost them."
Community leaders are encouraged to consider becoming a member of the Children's Home Society's Board of Directors. For information, call Officer Carter at (321) 409-3426.
"Our community should take care of our own children," said Officer Carter. "We need the passion of other members in the community to help these girls."
For donations or volunteer information, call the Children's Home Society at (321) 752-3170 or visit www.chsfl.org.
Contact Gretchen Sauerman at (321) 751-5961 or e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.