Through the Heart

Heart of Florida Youth Ranch in Citra, Florida helps foster kids receive the love and structure they need. BAYS Florida offers kids in trouble redirection for a second chance at life. Both joined together for one extraordinary fundraiser that not only brought awareness to their cause, but charged up many to do more than donate money. They gave their hearts.

By: John Sotomayor               Photos by: Conan Segrest

There is nothing more heartwarming than the sound of children’s laughter. The wonder in their eyes, the jubilation in their clapping, and the freedom as they run and play portray the essence of childhood. It is a given then that it is equally heartbreaking when the laughter, wonder, jubilation, and freedom cease for a child due to neglect, abuse or the death of their parents. The Heart of Florida Youth Ranch exists to restore that childhood spirit to children in need. 

HOFYR is a faith-based residential youth program for children who have lost their parents by virtue of neglect, abandonment, or death. It provides a home environment for the children until they are placed in foster care or adoption, or are returned to their family or parents if the situation that caused the separation is remedied. It is not simply a dormitory for them to stay. The children participate in activities and build relationships.

HOFYR began as a boys’ ranch, and according to Dr. John Sweet, executive director, may have been part of the Sheriff’s Youth Ranch system.

At some point, the boys’ ranch ceased to exist and whoever owned it gifted the ranch property to a church which then gifted it to Church of God, which started the HOFYR in 1990.

HOFYR provides counseling and therapy for those kids who need it, such as Unbridled Hope Therapeutic Riding Program and Ignite, by Pastor Joshua Sarmiento.

“Basically, we are a ‘one-stop shop’ when it comes to providing whatever an individual child needs,” said Dr. Sweet. “We do an assessment of what their needs are, and how we can help them.”

Many children come with emotional and psychological problems, dealing with past traumas and family issues. Some have court issues. HOFYR provides assistance in the court process.

In addition, HOFYR helps with any educational and health issues the children may have, as well as spiritual guidance.

“We basically see ourselves as a place for the residents’ next step — whether that is a foster home or adoption, or return to their family or parents,” said Dr. Sweet. “We want to give these kids every opportunity to be successful.”

Partnership with BAYS Youth

BAYS Florida has a 36-year history of working with children and families, primarily children involved with the juvenile justice system.

“Our main goal is to help children change their behavior so they do not end up in the adult corrections system, and that their behavior does not escalate to the point of a major public safety issue,” said Alvin Martinez, director of community relations of BAYS Florida.

In 1982, the best friend of founder Bill Bowman was killed by a police officer while still a juvenile. While working at Sears, Bowman decided he wanted to do something to help children so they would never be faced with the same situation as his best friend.

Bowman incorporated Bay Area Youth Services to work with children who have been arrested and to keep them out of the juvenile justice system so they could turn their lives around.

For 30 years, Bay Area Youth Services operated around the Tampa Bay area with tremendous success. In 2013, the Department of Juvenile Justice asked the organization to extend their service coverage from a five-county area to statewide.

“We had to rebrand keeping BAYS as an acronym for Bay Area Youth Services, and add Florida to indicate statewide presence,” said Martinez.

BAYS Florida offers various programs and services. JDAP is a diversion model contracted with the Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ). The program is meant for first-time offenders: those arrested but who have never exhibited delinquent behavior.

“It provides the state attorneys in each judicial circuit with an option to not charge the child as a delinquent,” said Martinez. “In a diversion program, instead of applying a court remedy, the state attorney can list the case as ‘no file’ and send the case directly to us [BAYS Florida].”

Working in the diversion arena has been the primary purpose of BAYS for the past 36 years. The model has changed due to philosophical changes at the DJJ.

“It changed in 2010, becoming an evidence-based, research-driven diversion program for children that takes into account each individual child’s risk factors,” said Martinez. “Based on those basic elements, we create an individual service plan for each child, to increase the child’s protective factors and decrease their risk factors through various forms of intervention, including substance abuse education, anger management, and other factors in the children’s history causing them to misbehave. We give them the tools to behave in a productive fashion.”

The H.O.P.E. program stands for Helping Others Progress with Empowerment. It primarily works with children who have been separated from their parents in Hillsborough County, and were targets for abuse.

“Our role is to work with the child and a relative caregiver in order to reunify that child currently in some form of foster placement back with either their parents, grandparents, or other relative that can provide a stable home for the child,” Martinez explains.

The program is planned for expansion to other counties by July 2020, including Marion.

Ocala’s Got Talent

In the fall of 2018, HOFYR and BAYS Youth combined their resources to present the 4th  annual Ocala’s Got Talent fundraiser competition, generating much needed good cheer and goodwill for their causes. Modeled after the popular television show America’s Got Talent, Ocala’s Got Talent was held over a two-month period with five auditions held at various local churches accepting four semifinalists per audition to move on to the semifinals. Those 20 were then narrowed down to 10 finalists who competed two weeks later at the Les Bowen Auditorium at HOFYR, preparing two acts for the finals.

Several of HOFYR’s resident children competed. Most either sung or danced. The joy of watching these kids perform their hearts out on stage to cheering family, friends and fans felt like a shot through the heart by Cupid’s arrow.

Four years ago, HOFYR was offered the opportunity for the rights to the fundraiser name. The name was previously used by another organization.

The fundraiser brings awareness, exposure, and promotion to HOFYR and its services to children while allowing people in the community to express their talents.

“It is a win-win situation,” said Dr. Sweet.

Les Bowen, the namesake of the auditorium, has been a primary donor for many years. “He has a great heart for the ranch, and has given much of his time and effort to help the children,” said Dr. Sweet. “We could not ask for a better champion for the cause.”

“It is a tribute to the entire community in Ocala that they are willing to step up and support organizations that are really unsung heroes working with a challenged population,” said Martinez of BAYS Florida. “The fact that the community recognizes our goal to help children succeed and inspire change within them reflects upon the spirit of the event [Ocala’s Got Talent].”

HOFYR Services

  • Family life in residential living units provided with quality of service
  • Social services provided to residents and, where possible, their families
  • Educational programs
  • Spiritual guidance and enrichment
  • Staff teams provide responsive, child-centered working practices
  • Licensed professional psychotherapy
  • Case management to connect services: academic, personal, life skills, and psychiatric medicine management
  • Intake, discharge, and after-care planning
  • Behavioral overlay services with individual treatment plans
  • Connectivity with approved visiting resources


BAYS Florida Services

  • JDAP Program — Diversity Program prevent criminal record and acquire services at BAYS
  • Substance Abuse Prevention Program — Use of Drug Prevention 4 Teams evidence-based curriculum
  • H.O.P.E. Program — Intensive Family Reunification Services
  • Civil Citation — Partnership with DJJ for pre-arrest diversionary effort for participants 12 years old or younger assessed as high-risk
  • GED & Back to School Initiative — Partnership with RAYS Baseball Foundation to offer GED scholarships in Pasco County
  • BAYS Community Care — Intervention services and mental health counseling
  • BAYS Family Connections — Functional Family Therapy (FFT), a short-term, high quality intervention program with 12 – 14 sessions over three to five months for 11- to 18-year-old youth referred for behavioral or emotional problems


BAYS Florida By the Numbers

  • BAYS Florida serves over 4,600 youth every year
  • 83% of youth successfully completed JDAP program in August 2017
  • BAYS Florida collected more than $2.5 million in victim restitution
  • 92% of youth did not reoffend in Circuit 12
  • Youth received over 50,000 hours of counseling
  • Youth have performed over 1.5 million hours of community service

Pin It on Pinterest