T.J. Wood talks life as director of sheriff’s girls ranch

Published 9:30 am Friday, December 15, 2023

VALLEY — At the local civic club’s final meeting of 2023, the Kiwanis Club of Valley on Wednesday heard a year-end review from T.J. Wood on what’s been going on at the Alabama Sheriff’s Girls Ranch in Tallapoosa County. A former long-time deputy with the Chambers County Sheriff’s Office, Wood was named director of the ranch earlier this year.

“This is the first time I have talked to you since I have been the director,” he told members of the club. “It has been a blessing for me to have been at the ranch. We recently had some visitors from Chambers County. We’d like to have more residents from the county come over to the ranch to see what we have going on.”

It’s best to call in advance to schedule a visit. The ranch can be reached at (256) 896-4113. Wood may be reached at tjwood@alsyr.org.

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“We are invested in turning around the lives of young people and heading them in a better direction,” Wood said. “Our girls are at the ranch due to no fault of their own. They are in need of responsible adult supervision that comes from being in a loving home.”

Michael Smith is the organization’s chief executive officer. The ranch program dates to the early 1960s when Alabama sheriffs got together to share stories about youth they had known in their own communities who were starting to follow the same dangerous and destructive road their parents were on.

Today there are four ranches in the state, two for boys and two for girls. The boys ranches are in Baldwin and St. Clair counties and the girls ranches are in Tallapoosa and Colbert counties. A maximum of 60 youth can reside there. The Tallapoosa County Girls Ranch can play host to up to 28 girls. They live in four homes on the ranch, each headed by Christian house parents.

“Being able to provide for them has been an amazing experience,” Wood said. “Even on your worst day, a kind word from a girl can totally turn things around. The adults on the ranch have been given the rare chance to love other people’s children and to give them a chance to have a normal life.”

The ranch has taken in five girls since Wood has been there. Ironically, the first one came there from Chambers County. “It was the first one that had come from here in a long time,” Wood said. “I knew her family, and that helped a lot.”

Each ranch is a work environment where young people learn to handle daily chores.

Wood fell in love with the ranch and the good work that’s taking place there the first time former Sheriff Sid Lockhart took him there for a visit. “It is so rewarding to be part of turning lives around for young people,” Wood said. “Our girls are typical teenagers, and they have similar problems all girls their age have. They come from troubled backgrounds and haven’t received the best parenting in the world. Many of the girls had never been treated to a birthday party before coming to the ranch.”

Wood has found that there’s no better way to start the day than the way it’s done at the girls ranch. There’s a flagpole ceremony where everyone recites the Pledge of Allegiance and someone leads the group in prayer. Often, it’s one of the girls.

“We are trying to teach them the life skills they will need when they are out on their own,” Wood said.

Volunteers from the local community can play a big role in this. Women who work at banks, for example, have come by to teach them how to balance a checkbook.

The ranch is justifiably proud of their success stories. One of the former ranch girls in a successful attorney in Montgomery and remains very active in supporting the ranch and valuing the time she spent there. A young man who spent his teen years on a boys ranch now heads the Montgomery-based Safety Net organization.

“We have a number of young adults who grew up on a ranch who are very involved in what we do,” Wood said. “Having such involvement is so important to our continued success.”

Wood and wife Jetta recently went Christmas shopping with some of the older girls.

“They bought gifts for the younger girls,” he said. “They are learning money management by doing this.”

The Woods also introduced the girls to a much beloved Christmas tradition in the Valley.

“We took them to the merry go round,” Wood said.

“Many of our girls had absolutely nothing when they came to the ranch,” Wood said. “They are so appreciative of anything you do for them. They love to receive gifts or to go on trips.”

Wood said he loved working for the Chambers County Sheriff’s Department but has no regrets about becoming ranch director.

“It’s the most rewarding thing I have ever done,” he said.