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My parents divorced when I was very young. My mother got custody of my older sister Tracey and me. She married a hard man who was physically abusive to me, leading to court which resulted in my father obtaining custody. Tracey was 13, and I was 5 at the time. For the next couple of years, we moved from one motel to another. My sister got married when she was 16 years old. That left me with my dad as he kept a night shift job but continually made bad choices that led to alcoholism. Often left to fend for myself, I had no structure or guidance. If not for other guests at the motels where we stayed, I might not have had many meals either. I began smoking at a very young age and spent days walking the streets, getting into lots of mischief. Due to the freedom I had, I was on the brink of quitting school.
My sister’s husband worked for a company that did projects at Big Oak Boys’ Ranch so as he became more familiar with the Ranch, he shared information with my sister. She got in touch with me and said, “I want to take you somewhere this weekend, to a Boys’ Ranch in Gadsden.” The first perception that came to my mind was a detention center. But my sister just continued to encourage me. They drove me to the Boys’ Ranch on a Sunday morning in early spring 1988. I was 16 years old. There was a man outside one of the homes so we pulled up to talk with him. It happened to be Steve Franklin, the housedad at the Spradling-Mason Home. Pop Franklin talked with us about the Ranch and took us over to the office. As we waited in the sitting area, Pop Franklin was in one of the offices gathering an application for me. The memory that sticks with me the most is a photo that was hanging in the office. Looking at it, I said, “Who is that?” Pop Franklin responded, “You don’t know who that is?” I said, “No.” Pop said, “That is Jesus.” He did not force a conversation but simply talked about Jesus a bit. I felt so relaxed and comfortable and, as we left the Ranch that morning, I knew I wanted to go back.
It was the Saturday before Easter, and I will never forget the feeling as we pulled back up to the Spradling-Mason Home; boys playing everywhere, and food being cooked for Easter Sunday celebrations. They showed my dad around, and we unpacked the small sack holding all that I had. Somehow, everything I needed was already there. My first summer at the Ranch, I began tutoring three days a week as the staff helped me catch up. Because of the tutoring, I was ready for 9th grade when school started that fall.
Everyone in my home participated in chores around the Ranch. One of our house chores was planting and watering all the flower beds and trees. I remember when the oak trees were planted at the front entrance of the Boys’ Ranch. Every day my job was to make sure those trees were watered for 10 minutes. Each time I visit, I see how big those trees have grown.
I came home from school one afternoon with all of the paperwork for Mom and Pop Franklin to read regarding the trade school and welding program I wanted to enter. Mom Franklin, knowing nothing about welding took my list and went to buy welding supplies. That was a pivotal and meaningful moment. I didn’t even know how to weld but it was exciting having my own gear. I still have my first welding hood that Mom Franklin bought for me. It’s in my office and pretty worn but I am so proud of it.
The longer I lived at the Ranch the more I began to understand what it was like to trust adults. My Resource Parents, Jim and Patsy Burks, along with the influence of Larry Fuhrman through Westbrook Christian School – they were so consistent with their presence, wisdom and love for me and my house brothers. They were the perfect support team Big Oak Ranch needed in raising me.
At Big Oak’s 45th Anniversary in 2019, I walked into the remodeled Boys’ Ranch office as Brodie (Croyle, Executive Director of Big Oak Ranch) stood at the door welcoming everyone. I asked him about the picture of Jesus from all those years ago and to my surprise the Ranch gifted it to me. Today that picture of Christ hangs in the foyer of my home as the first thing I see when I walk in and the last thing I see when I leave. Life is full of surprises and troubles, and I have had my share. I tried to live life without the values and work ethic that Big Oak instilled in me. But life never worked out until I went back to those roots.
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