Eugene Coleman, Jr., Director of Family Life at Seamark Ranch, knows a thing or two about the foster care system. Having moved from South Carolina in 2013, Coleman previously worked as the regional director of a therapeutic foster care agency that assigns displaced children into individual homes. He now finds himself with the unique responsibility of bringing foster children from all over the state to Seamark, a 501(c) Christian-based foster home in Green Cove Springs.
While a handful of exceptional foster care organizations exist in Florida, Seamark Ranch is at a level all its own. The degree of care given to every child brought to their door is nothing short of extraordinary. Like their name suggests, they have become a permanent beacon of light for the neediest among us.
Seamark Ranch was founded in 2001 by Jacksonville couple Keith and April Denton, who dreamed of providing a healing atmosphere which would encourage broken children to thrive. Keith, himself, had been raised by foster parents in Alabama for most of his childhood, and credits his positive foster care experience as the reason he went from trouble youngster to valedictorian of his high school graduating class.
Soon after founding, two Jacksonville families who believed in the Denton’s mission donated 468-acres of land in Clay County. Shortly after, in 2007, Seamark Ranch opened their doors and have since served nearly 100 children.
Both the Dentons’ and their appointed Board of Directors operate the Ranch with an unheard of debt-free philosophy. Every donation given to their mission is spent on tangible results, never interest payments or any other forms of debt.
The Ranch currently accommodates 16 children (eight boys, eight girls) divided into two large, Victorian-style group homes. Each with a permanent parental unit, which give the children the opportunity to be raised a traditional, stable family environment. The ranch hopes to break ground on two additional homes later this year, allowing the Ranch to increase the number of children served.
Seamark provides a fully functional K-12 school on premises with three paid teachers and principal. Sixteen students from the Ranch and a handful of local tuition-paying students attend. The school currently shares a space with the administrative offices, but that will all be changing later this year as the school begins to expand.
In addition to education, the Ranch has a successful agricultural program. Both the boys and girls share the responsibility of caring for the property’s large gardens. Each year the children harvest a wide variety of crops, including peppers, tomatoes, raspberries, and sugarcane. Coleman proudly reported the Ranches’ blueberries, harvested once per year, has become a significant source of income, providing the children the opportunity to take a yearly family vacation. This spring brought with it several unusual freezing temperatures which destroyed this years blueberry crops. Thankfully, the community donated the necessary funds to ensure the children did not miss out on this highly anticipated event.
In addition to a wide variety of produce, cows, goats, pigs, rabbits, and turkeys also serve as a source of food and responsibility for the children. “Some of the younger children get attached to the animals they care for, but you just have to explain that we take care of them so one day they can take care of us”, explains Coleman.
The community has donated nearly ten horses to Seamark, which are housed in a beautiful red stable. Volunteers from throughout the area come to teach the children how to ride and assist in caring for the animals. Some of the children ride for sport, but as Coleman explained, “they are just as much for therapy”.
The setting that Seamark Ranch provides for these children is as beautiful as it sounds, and then some. It is a backdrop straight out of Huckleberry Finn. It is magical, peaceful, and far from the distractions from the rest of the world. However, Coleman frequently notes how challenging this line of work can be. “Adults come here and they are blown away by what they see. But, a lot of these children do not appreciate it for what it is. We keep them busy; we provide them structure, which is foreign to a lot of them. They can resist.”
This resistance is not surprising. For many children who find themselves in the foster care system, hope can often be an abstract concept.
Foster children are often forcefully removed from dangerous situations which have stripped them of their innocence and faith in those around them. They often come into the foster care system abused, neglected, and abandoned. Once displaced, they frequently discover themselves in a nightmare of red tape and questionable conditions from a system that continues to be crushed by an ever-increasing demand.
This constant deficiency of stable environments is not at all surprising; few people possess the heart necessary to aid in the treatment of children who are broken at such a deep level. It is an excruciatingly emotional line of work, one that taxes even the most seasoned of individuals. Attempting to mitigate varies forms of psychological damage is a long, uphill battle that will almost certainly take years of unwavering dedication, treatment, and support to correct their flawed understanding of the most basic human needs: love, kindness, support, security, and most importantly, trust.
The Florida Department of Children and Families conducted 135,728 investigations of abuse or neglect in 2016. The number of children in what’s known as out-of-home care has reached 22,004 statewide, up from 17,591 in 2013. There are several reasons for this upward trend, most specifically legislation signed by Gov. Rick Scott in 2014 which eliminated a “family protection” policy which often placed the rights and wishes of parents above the safety of their children. These stricter policies are keeping children in foster care in an attempt to protect them from potentially dangerous situations.
Extensive biological and developmental research have emerged over the last 25 years regarding the long-lasting cognitive harm on a young mind as a result of emotional abuse and neglect, which include various cognitive delays, impairments in executive functioning, and disruptions of the body’s stress response. A recent report published by Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University notes that “thriving communities depend on the successful development of the people who live in them and building the foundations of successful development in childhood require responsive relationships and supportive environments.”
For the founders and directors of Seamark Ranch, they have always understood how imperative their mission is. What they offer foster children is a second chance at a joyful, healthy childhood. They are quite literally reshaping futures and changing lives every day.
For those interested in donating their time or resources to Seamark Ranch visit, http://www.SeamarkRanch.com.