LIVERMORE -- A "for sale" sign at the Buenas Vidas Youth Ranch, in the heart of Livermore's wine country, tells the story.
The 5-acre horse ranch on Tesla Road, a former group home for teenage boys, is being sold to pay off debts incurred by the nonprofit that owns it. After nearly 40 years of providing respite for children from troubled backgrounds, Buenas Vidas is shutting down because of a lack of funding.
Though saddened by the demise, co-founder Sally Bystroff has no regrets.
"We found all kinds of ways to deal with kids labeled 'at-risk,'" Bystroff said. "We wanted to see them become a success. I think we did that."
Founded by Bystroff and Ruth and Butch Shattuck in 1974, Buenas Vidas operated as many as three group homes at a time, taking in thousands of teens over the years who had difficulties in foster care. Alameda County Social Services placed boys ages 13 to 18 -- many of them developmentally disabled or from neglectful homes -- at the ranch to learn life skills.
Bystroff handled fundraising and worked with the parents; the Shattucks cared for the children. On the ranch, the boys handled day-to-day chores. They were taught how to balance a checkbook, simple car mechanics and shopping for themselves. Volunteers worked with teachers to keep the teens in school and took them on camping trips in the summers.
"It was wonderful to watch these kids grow and change the viewpoints of themselves," Bystroff said. "Our kids didn't get out on the streets like a lot of foster kids did. They were able to get jobs, and many of them stabilized."
Buenas Vidas bought the Tesla Road ranch in 1993. Boys were put in charge of caring for and feeding animals, including horses and llamas. The ranch's remoteness and animal program were its two greatest attributes, according to Ken Jacobsen, Buenas Vidas' board president.
"These kids all had responsibilities for these large pets," Jacobsen said. "Being able to care about something else seemed to have a big therapeutic impact on a lot of the kids' lives."
The ranch -- which costs more than $500,000 per year to operate -- was funded primarily through state and city grants. Supplemental income came from its popular Bingo nights and through the Buenas Vidas Thrift Store on L Street, where many boys found their first employment.
Ruth Shattuck died in 2006. In 2010, the state began cutting funding for group homes, and Alameda County stopped sending boys to the ranch. The last group left the following year.
Seeking to repurpose the ranch as a home for girls, board president Ken Jacobsen approached Oakland-based nonprofit MISSSEY -- Motivating, Inspiring, Supporting and Serving Sexually Exploited Youth. The board hired MISSSEY's Amba Johnson as executive director and began the transition.
Last summer, Johnson said, Buenas Vidas experienced a "series of unfortunate events" over an outdated city ordinance regarding bingo payouts and temporarily had to reduce prize money and games. The city rectified the issue but not before Buenas Vidas had lost about $35,000 in expected income from the drop in business.
Facing at least a year before they could get a girls' program off the ground, board members decided the best course was to close. After the ranch is sold, Jacobsen said, $200,000 in debt will be paid off and any residuals will go to MISSSEY.
Johnson's hope is that the ranch can be used as a safe haven for sexually exploited girls -- some as young as 10 years old -- who have nowhere else to turn.
"It's not an urban problem anymore; it's everywhere," Johnson said. "There's no place for them to be safe when transitioning off the street."
Johnson said a girls' ranch would cost at least a million dollars a year to run. Bystroff hopes the ranch can be used to further MISSSEY's aims and that the county can assist.
"We are incredibly grateful to the people who have helped us," Bystroff said. "We had a lot of support from people, and we really feel a deep sense that it was the community that was raising those kids."
Contact Jeremy Thomas at 925-847-2184. Follow him at Twitter.com/jet_bang.
Community-based nonprofit MISSSEY -- Motivating, Inspiring, Supporting and Serving Sexually Exploited Youth -- is headquartered in Oakland and works to counsel, shelter and raise awareness of Commercially Sexually Exploited Children (CSEC). The group will be holding a wine-tasting fundraiser from 5:30 to 8 p.m. Feb. 27 at Cerruti Cellars, 100 Webster St. in Oakland. The cost is $30 per person and includes two glasses of wine and hors d'oeuvres. Donations can also be made at misssey.org.