Prayer groups dream for new youth facility taking shape in county

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, September 16, 2003

Three years ago, a dream for a new facility to serve the needs of Selma and Dallas County’s most at-risk youth began to germinate in the mind of a former house parent of the Sheriff’s Boys Ranch, which closed in the mid-1980s.

A local men’s prayer group began reflecting on the enormous needs of Dallas County youth in the fall of 2000 and reality inched a bit closer.

A year later, in November 2001, God’s Miracle Ranch, a 501(c)3 nonprofit corporation was chartered.

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Twelve acres of land on Pea Ridge Road at the intersection of Highways 84

and 261 in the Burnsville area of far northeast Dallas County were given by an anonymous donor.

And a year ago a groundbreaking was held at the site.

According to two members of the board, Dr. Park Chittom Sr., longtime Selma physician, and Philip Johnson, an electrical engineer living in Selma, plans are proceeding apace for construction to begin later in the fall.

In the intervening months, Chittom and Johnson say a miraculous array of resources has been brought together to make the start-up possible. The two men, who have been involved in the project since the beginning, attributed the rapid progress to prayer and the work of the Holy Spirit.

An enormous amount of time has been donated by professionals, they said, including a Montgomery architect, engineers and others. Tasks accomplished include a topographical survey, soil perk tests, civil engineering to lay out roads and the development of a master plan for the site, to name a few.

Fund-raising has been conducted quietly by planners all along, but up to now every need has been met, according to Chittom and Johnson.

A master plan is in place, which eventually will include three 5,000-square-foot homes for youth, a director’s home and a chapel. A pre-existing antebellum home on the site will be renovated to provide additional space for activities.

The first unit to be constructed will be one of the homes that will house eight to 10 youth.

Chittom said that originally the group had hoped to build out on the old house on the property. But over time they realized that a new campus needed to be constructed. They also realized that, instead of building the administrative space first, what was needed was a dwelling for youth, so that potential donors and the community at large could see a program in operation rather than one yet to get off the ground.

As Chittom and Johnson describe it, God’s Miracle Ranch will be &uot;totally, absolutely Christ-centered&uot; in its approach to assisting young people at risk. No funds are being sought that would compromise the Christ-centered character of the program.

The decision has not yet been made whether the program will house both male and female adolescents.

Susan Keith, the District Attorney’s community justice coordinator and formerly on the board of directors, is a strong proponent of the project.

According to Keith this program will be a &uot;prevention&uot; rather than a &uot;treatment&uot; program as was the former Sheriff’s Boys Ranch in Dallas County south of Selma. The focus will be on young people at risk rather than those who have already become involved with the criminal justice system.

Keith paints an alarming picture of the status of youth in Selma, Dallas and the surrounding Black Belt counties.

According to statistics provided by the Annie Casey Foundation, which does assessments nationally, by state and by county, and whose numbers are highly regarded by professionals in the field, Alabama ranks 48 out of the 50 states in services to children and families in crisis.

Dallas County is ranked among the lowest of 67 counties in the state on many measures involving the health, education, safety and security of its young people.

For example, according to the 2002 &uot;Data Book&uot; put out by Alabama Kids Count, Dallas County ranks:

60 out of 67 counties in low weight births;

66 in births to unmarried teens;

59 in first grade retention;

58 in juvenile violent crime arrest rate;

67 in juvenile violent crime court referral rate;

65 in vulnerable families;

63 in children receiving AFDC and Food Stamps;

60 in children in poverty;

63 in single-parent families with children.

The situation is desperate, Keith said, especially when one considers the surrounding counties which have been described as &uot;America’s Third World.&uot; There are so many children and youth in unsuitable homes or in insufficiently suitable homes. Available foster care is woefully inadequate, according to Keith.

Keith said that, in many respects, Selma and Dallas County offer

&uot;the worst of the worst for children in the nation.&uot; She said the median family income in 2002 was $29,906, with 31.1 percent living below the poverty level.

The board of God’s Miracle Ranch in northeast Dallas County, knows

the extent of the need, according to Chittom. Three years ago, he said, they realized that the project is &uot;of the Lord.&uot;