VENUS In 30 years, more than 750 boys walked through the doors of Last Chance Ranch.
However, the home for wayward boys has closed its doors.
As the name indicated, this was their final opportunity from the judge. Wearing orange jumpsuits, dozens of miles from the nearest city, up to 25 boys lived on campus in two dormitories at the desolate ranch, a mile south of Highlands County on SR 731.
When juveniles get into legal trouble, they can be imprisoned or they can sentenced to education, behavior modification and counseling for as many as nine months.
"Eighty-two percent of the students that graduate do not get back into trouble," said Lorraine Hutchins, the Lake Placid Rotary Club's chairwoman for vocational service. In November, the club donated money to the ranch in the hopes of keeping it open.
As former Last Chance student William Pennbaker told the Rotarians, each boy had made bad choices, and that's why they were there.
Lykes Brothers had leased the working ranch to the non-profit AMIkids for $1 a year, said Sherri Ulleg, spokeswoman for the corporate office in Tampa. "They've been very generous to us."
The facility was licensed to accept 25 boys. In June, the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice ended its contract with AMIkids, but extended for six months to shut down the program. The last student was graduated in December, Ulleg said.
"Right now, we only have eight," Executive Director Joe Chestnut said in November. He was hoping DJJ would change its mind, but that didn't happen.
"The students have the same requirements as any other student," Hutchins said in November. "After a full day at school, the students learn life skills, such as how to work with animals. They have pigs, cows and goats at the facility."
And horses, Chestnut added. Students could earn high school credits, earn a GED, or learn woodworking, electrical skills, green jobs, solar energy, culinary arts and animal husbandry from South Florida State College instructor.
"We really wanted to set these kids up for meaningful employment," Ulleg said. "They could be helping the community and become successful taxpayers."
Staff members are still closing down the program in Venus, Ulleg said. When that's done, some will be laid off, others will be offered jobs at 22 other AMIkids sites in Florida or 23 in seven other states.
"We're really proud of the work they did there," she said.