New sheriff keeping county tradition alive

Published 9:00 am Thursday, March 9, 2023

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VALLEY — Major T.J. Wood of the Chambers County Sheriff’s Office and Alabama Sheriffs’ Youth Ranches CEO Michael Smith were the guest speakers at the Monday meeting of the Valley Lions Club. Major Wood club members on the upcoming Sheriff’s Rodeo and Smith discussed the Youth Ranch program.

The annual Chambers County Sheriff’s Rodeo will occur on Friday, March 31 and Saturday, April 1. Wood credited the new sheriff, Jeff Nelson, for keeping this long-time tradition going. 

“He decided early on to continue it and grow it,” Wood said.

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This will be the 27th year the rodeo has taken place. It has been an important fundraiser for the sheriff’s office for more than a quarter-century now. It generates money needed for equipment for the county’s patrol cars, continued officer training, etc. The county commissioners like having a source of funding that does not require a local tax increase.

“It costs us $55,000 to fully equip a patrol car,” Wood said. “It costs that much to have all the lighting, the computers and intent connections that are needed in each patrol car. It costs $1,000 to have a new deputy fully equipped for his first day on the job.”

Tickets are $15 for adults and $10 for those 12 and under. Children three years of age and younger are admitted free.

Wood said that there are more sponsors for this year’s rodeo than there have ever been before. There are four levels of sponsorships: $1,500 for the major sponsors and levels of $750, $500 and $300 for additional sponsors.

“The rodeo has been a great thing for the county and the sheriff’s office,” Wood said. “I’m glad Sheriff Nelson is continuing it.”

Wood said the transition from Sheriff Sid Lockhart to the new sheriff has been smooth.

 “I wore a lot of hats under Sid,” he said. “I am doing more on the public relations side now. There’s been some moving around of personnel and getting officers into more visible roles. People have asked me if more deputies have been hired. They haven’t. It’s just that they are out in the public more than they have been. People are seeing them on the roads more often. We want people to know that if they need us we will be there.”

Wood asked citizens to feel free to ask questions and to provide input into what the sheriff’s office is doing.

When one sees a litter detail out on a Chambers County road, Wood will often be the deputy in the patrol car with the blue light warning approaching vehicles of people near the roadway.

“Anyone who knows me knows that the Alabama Sheriff’s Girls Ranch in Tallapoosa County is close to my heart,” Wood said. “I’ve come to know Michael Smith as the kind of man who has never worked a day in his life. That’s the way it is when you love what you do, and Michael Smith absolutely loves what he does for the state’s youth ranches.”

Smith told Wood he appreciated the introduction. He said that it’s true that he loves what he does every day for the young boys and girls on the four ranches in the state maintained by the Alabama Sheriffs Association.

“I talked today to a boy on the boys’ ranch in Baldwin County,” he said. “He was so excited to tell me that he had gotten a full ride in engineering at Auburn University. I feel so good for him.”

Smith last spoke to the local club three years ago, just before what he now calls the worst day in his life. Eight youth from the girls ranch were killed in a multi-car pileup on I-65 south of Montgomery in Butler County.

Smith said it was a day no one close to the ranch and who lived through that terrible day will ever forget. 

“I don’t always have a good day, but I always have a good year,” he said.

In a field across from the girls ranch office and homes, there’s a row of tall metal crosses to make the point that those who died that day will never be forgotten.

Smith thanked Lockhart on always having been supportive of the girls ranch.

 “I was worried about him leaving and a new sheriff coming aboard,” he said. “But I found out quickly that we are still in good hands in Chambers County. I went to a recent meeting of the Alabama Sheriff’s Association, where your new sheriff, Jeff Nelson, stood and spoke on behalf of our youth ranch program. I appreciate very much what he said in encouraging all sheriffs in the state to be actively involved in our youth ranch program.”

Smith said it costs $52,000 a year to provide for one girl on the ranch. Right now, there are 29 of them on the two ranches, including 20 in Tallapoosa County.

Some people have a common misconception that a girls ranch is a reform school, that the girls are there because of something they have done. This simply isn’t true. 

Some girls have never had a birthday party or doctor’s appointment when they arrive.

“On our ranches, lives get turned around for the good,” Smith said.

Smith said the state’s two boys ranches and the two girls ranches served some 80 young people. Because of the neglect they have gotten in their home life, there’s often a need to make up for lost time. Last year, for example, the youth on the four ranches had a total of 776 doctor appointments, which breaks down to 8.5 appointments per child.

The boys and girls on each ranch live with Christian house parents and learn early on the need for each one to attend daily chores. Some of the older teens get part-item jobs. Many are on the A-B honor rolls in school and many go on to attend college.

“We thank all the volunteers who come to our ranches to help us in some way,” he said. “Some cut the grass for us, and others help us another ways. The girls see this and know that there are people out there who care for them.”

Most of the support from the ranches come from the sheriffs, businesses and private donors. Smith said the sheriffs collectively contributed more than $250,000 last year. 

“I don’t know what we would do without them,” he said.

A major activity on the girls ranches will be coming up very soon. It’s going to be prom season. 

“We have a lot to do when that comes up every year,” Smith said.

Most of the youth on the four ranches are placed by the Alabama Department of Human Resources (DHR). Some come though private placement, and in some cases, they have been abandoned there with nothing more than the clothes on their backs.

“I would say that 75 to 80 percent of our youth have come through DHR,” Smith said. “They are all either on Medicaid or All Kids. We fill in in cases where parents or grandparents are unable to help.”

Smith said there’s one letter he received that has a permanent place on his desk. It’s from a woman who wanted to help out in some way for a ranch but had little money to do that. 

“Her letter included five one-dollar bills,” he said. “That really touched me. She sent all she could at the time.”

It costs around $2.5 million a year to operate the ranch program. At least 82 cents out of every dollar received benefits the kids on the ranches.

 “No one is getting rich off of what we do,” he said. “What we do is a ministry.”

Lions Club member Sam Bradford told Smith that he has something that a school administrator looks for in a teacher: passion. He made a motion to donate $250 to the girls ranch. It was quickly seconded and approved. Smith thanked them and reminded them that volunteering one’s time means more than money. 

“Many of these girls come from backgrounds where they felt that no one cared for them,” Smith said. “When they see people coming out to the ranch to help out in some way, they see that there are people in the world who do care for them.”