Gina Meier-Hummell, Executive Director of the O’Connell Youth Ranch, spoke to Rotarians about the work at the Youth Ranch. She is the former Secretary of the Kansas Department for Children and Families.
For 45 years, O’Connell Youth Ranch has been key to keeping young men out the prison system in Kansas. It sits on 125 acres east of Lawrence on O’Connell Road. There is currently space for 24 young men who range in age from 8 to 18 years-old in three houses. Residents attend the Lawrence Public Schools and/or work in the area.
Youth are referred to the Ranch by one of the Kansas state agencies that manages foster care placement. Most suffer from mental health issues, trauma, depression, addiction, and/or suicide. O’Connell is their home as long as needed, typically from 6 months to several years.
Meier-Hummel explains that residents find purpose in being active and making real contributions on a working ranch. The staff uses a strict behavior modification system, emphasizing positive reenforcement. The environment provides calm, rational, non-emotional, fair, and consistent direction to boys and young men who have not had such structure in the past. Successful behavior allows them to gain freedoms such as getting a driver’s license, finding a job, or joining a sports team at school. Most thrive in the structure and routine to learn self-control.