Column: A model forming for those in need

The Timothy Hill Children's Ranch. (Credit: file photo)
The Timothy Hill Children’s Ranch. (Credit: file photo)

I write this column at the risk of sounding like a P.R. rep for Timothy Hill Children’s Ranch. But the organization is the only one of its kind in the area — probably even all of Long Island — and has expanded rapidly in the past 13 months. And its growth may say something about the future of how we handle our disadvantaged youth. 

“The Ranch” opened in 1980, dedicated to providing a structured and disciplined safe haven for youngsters with no stable home life. Over the next 32 years, it established four group homes and a family counseling center. But most recently, in little more than the last year, the nonprofit has launched two new programs — The Right Path and Project 180 — involving six more transitional homes for young adults age 17 to 25, including its first two for women.

Entrance into the new programs at the ranch is voluntary and requires adherence to a strict set of rules. Each graduate of the 12- to 15-month programs must save $8,000 to $10,000 for future use on a car or housing. A job or school is mandatory, religious faith is encouraged and downtime doesn’t really exist.

“Idle hands are dangerous hands,” says Thud Hill, executive director of the ranch.

It’s clear from talking to a room full of young women in one of newly opened homes that while the program may be challenging, it sure beats where they came from — although it can be understandably hard for a reporter to extract details.

During a visit to the ranch this week, I learned that T.T. spent eight months in jail for being with someone who was “doing something very illegal.”

And Ezra, now 18, said she was “hangin’ out … all that fun” before coming to Timothy Hill.

Their vague descriptions seem to indicate a tendency to focus less on the past than on the present and future. They’re much more willing to talk about what they’ve learned and come to appreciate since arriving at Timothy Hill: something as simple as a “family dinner,” for example.

The expansion that’s occurred at Timothy Hill since last March is pretty staggering. Previously, the nonprofit housed 32 men. It now serves 54 men and women.

The Right Path and Project 180 programs are the upshot of an effort that began about six years ago which led in 2011 to the Youth Re-Entry Task Force, run through the county sheriff’s office with help from organizations like Council for Unity, Family Service League and the ranch, among others. The task forces focused on incarcerated youth, and the idea has been to invest extra time and resources on those at risk of finding their way back into the system.

It’s a needed, logical and progressive way to give a population in jeopardy a hand in getting on the right track. Recidivism rates for those who enter Suffolk jails typically top 70 percent, according to Kristin McKay, a spokeswoman for the sheriff.

So a fresh approach of some kind was clearly in order.

Ms. McKay said recidivism among those who have entered Youth Re-Entry Task Force programs, including those at Timothy Hill, has dropped below 10 percent. It should be noted that there’s still plenty of time for those who entered the program to re-offend, but this is a great start.

The homeless population hasn’t gotten any smaller in recent years either. An annual survey by the Long Island Coalition for the Homeless shows that homelessness in Suffolk grew by nearly 25 percent between 2009 and 2012 — and that number has likely gone up these past two winters.

Mr. Hill said that in the past couple of years, he’s noticed an increase in the need for service among the homeless and coming out of foster care. Thus, the six new homes — some of which house the recently homeless — are piloting programs through the Department of Social Services that are much similar to those first devised through the Youth Re-Entry Task Force, though the aim to prevent participants from ending up back in the “system,” be that jail or through social services.

Focusing on younger men and women at a crossroads of in their lives — when they’re beyond adolescence, but not quite mature adults — is a vital time to reach them, Mr. Hill said.

“They’re a little more self-aware about what they need to do. They realize it’s more on their shoulders. When they’re younger, they’re not usually thinking long-term yet,” he said.

Mr. Hill and Timothy Hill Ranch have made a long-term investment — to the tune of about $1.2 million — with the new accommodations for those coming out of jail and local homeless shelters. Let’s hope that investment pays off and programs like these continue to expand.

Pinciaro_Joe.jpgJoseph Pinciaro is managing editor of Suffolk Times and Riverhead News-Review. He can be reached at 631-298-3200, ext. 238. or [email protected]