Edgewood Children’s Ranch has weathered multiple storms this year, but its faith-based foundation and community support has kept it going.
In a year that has been rough for all, the Edgewood Children’s Ranch has experienced even more curveballs than COVID-19.
At the end of January, the ranch lost its beloved executive director, Stuart Eldridge, to a sudden heart attack. Eldridge had been involved with the ranch since 1983 — first as a cottage parent, then as an operations manager, before stepping into the role of executive director eight years ago.
Then, in March, the coronavirus pandemic hit. The ranch — which exists to serve children and provide them with a safe environment to change their behaviors and the course of their lives — had to send its children home.
“At times, it was hard, because I would look out at the playground, and there were no children out there,” said Kimberly Vinson, the ranch’s development and event coordinator. “Sometimes, it was hard to do my job — because I do fundraising and events — and nobody was here. When you love hearing the laughter of our kids and that motivates you to go above and beyond, and you don’t have that, it’s hard.”
Things are beginning to look up now that the ranchers are back on campus and school has started, but 2020 has presented a journey for the ranch’s staff that they couldn’t have traveled without leaning on their faith and the support of their community.
Not long after the new year began, the ranch suffered its first heartbreak of 2020 with Eldridge’s passing. The tragedy had everyone reeling, including Bruce Jordan — Eldridge’s mentee, former rancher and current executive director.
“Bruce and his wife, right after Stuart passed away, they immediately moved here on property with their four children when they owned a home up in Sanford,” said Joan Bailey, the ranch’s grant writer. “They moved here, converted one of the cottages for their family, and really, he’s been here since Day One after Stuart passed away. That’s a big deal.”
Jordan was a managing partner at a company called Kymera prior to taking on the role of executive director. It was a sudden transition, but Jordan knew his heart has been with the ranch since he was a rancher himself.
“(Stuart) was actually my house parent when I was here as a rancher,” Jordan said. “You go through that (loss), and then you go smack-dab into COVID, and everything is crazy. Then you’re going in to a political season in which everything is heated, giving is down, churches are not open, and you’re trying to make budgets and achieve these same things that every business in America is trying to do, too. Typically when they thrive, we thrive. … But the economy does seem to be making adjustments, and we’re surviving.”
When COVID-19 came, staff had to end the traditional year early. For a while, the ranchers completed their school responsibilities via Zoom. The transitions paralleled each other, with staff adjusting to a different leader and operating in a global pandemic.
“The staff had to adjust to me as new leader first, and I think people are still doing that,” Jordan said. “Any time leadership changes, you have changes. Then they’re adjusting to COVID, and we had to adjust schedules, because we didn’t do home weekends and house parents were working longer days. Since Day One, it’s been an adjustment. A lot of us are still trying to figure it out, but we have such a good team. I’ll always come back to the mission of helping change the lives of at-risk children and families. When everybody has the same goal, you make the adjustments and adapt.”
While the ranchers were gone, staff worked on campus-beautification projects such as giving buildings fresh coats of paint and new tile. But it wasn’t the same without the children around. After all, changing the lives of at-risk children and families in Central Florida is the ranch’s mission and purpose.
“Like with anything … there’s the daily battles, and you can go to bed with a heavy heart and the day that kind of beat up on you when nothing’s going right,” Jordan said. “But we’re blessed enough that God restores us the next morning to say, ‘OK, we’re gonna do it again.’ When you have something to get up in the morning for every day that’s not about you — it’s changing lives — it’s easy to start over, be energized and get going.”
The ranch’s energy returned in mid-July, when staff was finally able to welcome the ranchers back in stages. Returning children came back two weeks before the new ones, and cottages were separated from one another to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19.
“Since Day One, it’s been an adjustment. A lot of us are still trying to figure it out, but we have such a good team. … When everybody has the same goal, you make the adjustments and adapt.” — Bruce Jordan
Things look a little bit different in the COVID-19 era. In the cafeteria, tables are staged apart, and staff use paper products, masks and gloves to serve food. No outside guests were allowed until recently, and guests now are required to wear masks. There also are new hand-washing procedures and hand-sanitizer stations throughout the campus.
After a 14-day quarantine period, the ranchers finally were able to begin playing together again. Staff conducts temperature checks of each child every morning, and classrooms are separated via cottage.
“I’m so glad that they’re back,” Vinson said. “I think at the ranch, they get some familiarity and normalcy that they’re comfortable with us. So even though this is still going on and affects family life and things like that, there’s a little something they can find comfort in. They have structure, routines and things that they know. Bringing a little normalcy into someone’s life during this time can be big.”
Now, the ranch is thinking outside the box for ways to continue to recuperate financially. Giving is still down. Additionally, the annual gala may be in jeopardy.
Jordan said the ranch is down about $500,000 needed for its forecasted budget. However, staff continues to trust in God to provide for the ranch, and they are thankful for donors and community support.
“God’s always taken care of us ... He’s also given us the tools,” Jordan said. “This is our future. Thirty-plus years ago, I was the future, and I sit here today only because of this place. It is a difference-maker for Central Florida. … Every donor, volunteer, staff member, teacher, and every person that does something for this place is truly changing a life in Central Florida. They truly are change-makers.”