Wood updates life at the Girls Ranch

Published 10:30 am Friday, November 17, 2023

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WEST POINT — T.J. Wood talked about his first few weeks as the new director of the Tallapoosa County girls ranch at Thursday’s noon-hour meeting of the West Point Rotary Club. Wood accepted the position in September after 22 years as a deputy with the Chambers County Sheriff’s Office.

“It has been an absolute blessing for me to have been there,” he said. “I miss Chambers County and so many people I know who live there. There has been an adjustment. I didn’t know that many people in Tallapoosa County when I went there. With time, that will work itself out. It has been an amazing experience for me having an everyday role in the Alabama Sheriff’s Youth Ranches program.”

There are four such ranches in Alabama, two for boys and two for girls. The girls ranches are in Tallapoosa and Colbert counties, and the boys ranches are in Baldwin and St. Clair counties.

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Wood explained how the ranch system came about.

“Back in the 1960s, Alabama sheriffs did a lot to talking between themselves about a problem they had been seeing with children whose parents were having problems with substance abuse and getting in trouble with the law,” Wood said. “Children were not to blame for what their parents were doing, but if they stayed in that same situation they would eventually get in trouble as well.”

The sheriffs agreed that if the children could be taken out of those situations and put in a new home where they could learn daily responsibilities they could have a better future.

This led to the first youth ranch, the one for boys in Baldwin County. The first girls ranch was located near the Tallapoosa-Lee county line in the early 1970. The Samford family donated a 200-acre site where a working ranch could be located.

“Everybody has chores to do every day,” Wood said. “That takes some getting used to if you had always lived in the Valley like I had. We have eight horses, a bunch of cows, four goats, 20 chickens and one donkey.”

Wood drew laughter from the nice-sized crowd of Rotarians on hand when he talked about the donkey.

“I think he hates me,” he said. “He loves the girls. I guess he likes the way they treat him, but when he sees me he brays his head off.”

There are three homes on the ranch and two house parents for each home. The house parents work 12 straight days and have four days off. Relief parents then take their place. It’s then 12 more days and four more days off and so on.

On a rotating basis, each house has the responsibility of taking care of one group of animals for one week. The girls feed, brush and pet each animal every day. One week they will do the cows, the next week the horses and so on.

“Every time that donkey screams at me I ask myself ‘What did I do to him?’” Wood joked.

Wood said the best part of his day is the early morning when everyone takes part in a flagpole ceremony. There’s prayer and everyone recites the Pledge of Allegiance. The girls do their chores and then it’s off to school in Reeltown.

“They are very much involved in school activities,” Wood said. “We even have one girl who is into wrestling.”

No organization is 100 percent successful.

“I won’t try to tell you that ranch life has worked out for every girl who has been there,” Wood said, “but in the vast majority of cases it does make a big difference in turning around for the better the lives of our girls. They learn individual responsibility in a strong Christian environment.”

For many years, the girls arrived to the ranch through private placement. A grandparent, an aunt or an uncle would make these arrangements after a girl’s parents were unable to give them a responsible raising. In some cases, a girl would be dropped off there with nothing but the clothes on her back.

There has been a shift in recent years from private placement to placement from the Department of Human Resources.

For many years, there hadn’t been any girls there from Chambers County. Ironically, the first girl placed at the ranch since Wood has been there came from Chambers County.

“I knew the family and the circumstance of her being placed there by DHR,” Wood said.

Since Wood arrived at the ranch in September, three new girls have been placed there. There’s a total of 18 in the three ranch homes.

All of them came from backgrounds where they had been abused, abandoned or neglected by their parents.

Wood said it’s gratifying to see young girls mature.

“Their first week on the ranch is one of adjustment,” he said. “They usually keep to themselves and watch what the other girls do. They eventually bond with them and become close friends. It meant a lot to me to see one of our girls testify in church, telling everyone how her life had changed since she got saved.”

Girls can stay at the ranch as long as they are enrolled in school. This also includes college attendance.

Wood said he would never forget being introduced to the ranch. “One day Sheriff (Sid) Lockhart asked me if I wanted to go to the girls ranch over in Tallapoosa County,” Wood said. “He told me they were having a Christmas party and that I might enjoy it. It was something really special to see when they opened their presents. No matter what they got they were so excited and appreciated it so much. I remember one of the girls getting carried away with a lava lamp. She had never seen anything like it. It meant as much to her as if she had been given a million dollars.”

Wood said that some of the girls at the ranch had never had a birthday party before coming there.

“Some things we take for granted are first-time experiences for them,” he said.

Wood sees the girls in the mornings and in the late afternoons when they get back to the ranch from school. He and wife, Jetta, live in a house near the center of the ranch. Jetta drives to and from LaFayette every day. She’s a corrections officer for the Chambers County Sheriff’s Office. While the girls are away at school, there’s lots of business details to take care of in running the ranch.

“People ask me if Jetta and I live in a household with some of the girls,” Wood said. “We don’t. That’s the responsibility of the house parents. I guess you could say they look at us as a cool aunt and uncle.”