When Volusia County Sheriff Ben Johnson first took office in 2001, the Florida Sheriffs Association introduced him to the Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches primary campus in Live Oak during a tour for newly elected Sheriffs. Having heard of the program for years, Sheriff Johnson renewed his understanding about the importance of the program during this visit. He saw first-hand the boys living in a traditional home with cottage parents and siblings (other boys close in age also living at the Ranch), and the tremendous effort to educate the boys in traditional classrooms, but also educating them about responsibility and taking care of what they’ve been given - learning how to care for the grounds, livestock, the ranch, and each other. This experience moved Sheriff Johnson so much, he decided to do his part to ensure the Youth Ranches enjoyed many more years for success.
Working with a group of community-minded citizens and members of the Sheriff's Office, Sheriff Johnson organized an annual charity event known as the Battle of the Badges School Bus Race held at the New Smyrna Speedway in New Smyrna Beach. For six years, the event grew in popularity and attracted onlookers from all over Volusia County. Sheriffs from other counties attended and challenged Sheriff Johnson for year-long bragging rights in the school bus race. Local, regional, and national businesses sponsored the event, and each year outdid the last in fundraising. From 2001 to 2005, the event raised nearly a quarter-million dollars for the Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches.Tragedy strikes...
In 2006, the Battle of the Badges committee got sophisticated and formed the VCSO Charity Committee, Inc. With a board of directors and volunteers comprised of VCSO deputy sheriffs and civilian employees, as well as members of the community, this group collectively organized the Battle of the Badges event. Unfortunately in that same year, the event abruptly ended in tragedy, when Lake County Sheriff Chris Daniels, an avid supporter of the Youth Ranches, was killed in an accident during the main event. The shock of this outcome devastated countless supporters and raised doubts as to whether or not the Volusia County Sheriff's Office should continue with their efforts. Despite this unspeakable outcome, Sheriff Johnson resolved himself to doing something else to keep up the support. He knew, as did many others, that was what Chris Daniels would want.
In 2007, the Halifax Sport Fishing Club first approached the Charity Committee and suggested we consider an inshore fishing tournament as the new format to raise support for the Youth Ranches. The concept seemed promising in this community of abundant anglers and waterways, though skeptics argued we would be lucky to have 150 people enter the tournament or raise more than $25,000. Operating under the motto, "Attitude Reflects Leadership," our first president, Captain Vinnie Vecchi and the committee accepted the challenge to make this a great event and prove the skeptics wrong.
Following eight months of planning and a strong marketing campaign, the event, dedicated in honor of Sheriff Daniels, kicked off to a remarkable start when 304 anglers registered in the days and weeks leading up to the tournament. This was just the beginning of good outcomes that weekend. With live entertainment throughout the day, a delicious food court, vendors, kids games (each sponsored by different groups of VCSO deputies and employees), fishing lessons with 200 free fishing poles and bait given away to kids, a concert by WOFL Fox 35 weatherman Jim Van Fleet & The Reign, and culminating with fireworks over the Intracoastal Waterway, our first attempt at a fishing tournament drew nearly 200 sponsors, over 5,000 spectators, and raised $115,000 for the Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches.
In 2008, the fishing event was expanded into a three-day "Family Fun Fest" and it became an even bigger success. Thousands of locals turned out to hear Nashville recording artist Lee Brice conclude the festivities with a free concert. All told, the 2008 event brought in $117,500 for the Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches. However, a struggling economy forced the Charity Committee to downsize the 2009 fishing tournament, but the quality of the event was not allowed to suffer. The fishing tournament was attended by 225 anglers and at the end of the day a check for $50,000 was presented to the Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches.
During the planning for the first fishing tournament, 12 members of the VCSO Charity Committee went to Live Oak to see for themselves what Sheriff Johnson raved so much about. Much to our surprise, we saw everything he saw and more. Amazed with the degree to which this organization and these boys take care of everything given them - all of which is provided by generous donations from private citizens and businesses - our members were speechless. After speaking directly with several young teenage men, we quickly realized that without this support, they would most certainly be in the juvenile justice system leading unproductive lives and compounding many problems seen today. Instead, the Youth Ranches build-up these young men and women's self-esteem by challenging them with responsibility and providing them with caring parents in a loving home. The origins of the young men we met would never come close to providing what the Youth Ranches gives them. In speaking with the Youth Ranches staff, we learned that it costs about $48,000 per child per year to live at the Youth Ranches - there were four boys there from Volusia County. Knowing this further established our resolve to fight harder, especially in these prohibitive economic times, to find more support to keep the Youth Ranches' programs going.
The Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches was originally started by the Florida Sheriffs Association in 1957. In 2007, the Youth Ranches, with six campuses across the state, served their 100,000th child. With a 50+ year track record of proven results and service to at-risk youth in Florida, this organization deserves your continued support. For more information about the Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches, please visit: www.youthranches.org.