As you enter the Big Oak Girl’s Ranch headquarters, the first thing you see is a seal on the floor. On it is a tree, and on the tree are the last several lines of Isaiah 61:3:
“... so they will be called OAKS of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that He may be glorified.”
Former University of Alabama (UA) All-American defensive end John Croyle set out to show children the hope of this verse when he founded the Big Oak Ranch in 1974 after he met a little boy while working at a summer camp.
The boy’s mother was a prostitute, and he lived on the streets of New Orleans. John explained to the boy how to become a Christian. The following summer, the boy returned to the same camp and told John all about how Christ had changed his life. John took this as a calling.
With a Girls' Ranch in Springville and a Boys' Ranch in Gadsden, Big Oak Ranch is a place for children whose circumstances have left them needing a home. Before arriving at Big Oak Ranch, some of the children they serve suffered from extreme poverty, neglect and even violence. Big Oak Ranch provides them with a home, a family and a Christ-centered community nestled in the foothills of North Alabama.
On Tuesday, 1819 News sat down with Brodie Croyle and his wife, Kelli. Brodie is John's son, who now runs Big Oak Ranch with his wife.
Not only does Big Oak operate completely debt-free without taking funds from any government entity, but it assigns children to full-time house parents, married couples who gave up their jobs to come to live at the Ranch with the children.
The Ranch also operates a cattle program (Big Oak Cattle) that stocks the Ranch with over 15,000 pounds of red meat every year and runs ASCEND, a program to prepare young adults who grew up at Big Oak Ranch for the real world.
Brodie and Kelli attribute Big Oak’s success to its insistence on sticking to its principles.
“We operate in an industry that is changing,” Brodie Croyle said. “There is a 40% attrition rate in children’s homes in this country compared to 10 years ago. And were’ growing in that … There’s a lot of people in a lot of places that chase whatever the next fad is, that chase whatever they deem is going to be the next thing, the next big hit. And what we have done is we have said … ‘If our values aren’t strong enough and they don’t cost us something, then you know what, we’re not standing on them hard enough.”
Big Oak Ranch now has 13 homes for boys and 11 for girls. It served 10 different states last year. However, the majority are from right here in Alabama. Since 1974, Big Oak has served more than 2,000 children from across the United States and even some from around the world.
Among these children, over 100 have professed their faith in Christ over the past five years. In the 2021-2022 school year, 99 children finished on the A/B honor roll, and 13 young adults received college or trade education.
“What our job is, is to display family, to live out what God intended family to be,” said Brodie.
When children arrive at Big Oak Ranch, they are assigned a set of houseparents and move into a two-story brick home with their own bedroom. Children receive food, clothing, health care, dental care and even attend a private Christian school in Rainbow City.
Big Oak Ranch does all this completely debt-free without taking money from the government.
“We don’t want to owe any man any money, and that way, we’re not indebted to anyone,” Brodie said. “We still operate that way to this day … We’ve also been blessed with a lot of people that love that concept, and the great part about them loving that concept is that they continue to let us keep operating within that concept.”
“At the end of the day, God continues to provide us with supporters who have a heart for our children and a heart for our ministry that can give in ways to support things that we need to do,” Kelli said. “I really believe that is truly a reflection of obedience to this calling. That is a blessing that the Lord is giving us.”
The goal of Big Oak Ranch is to provide for all aspects of a child’s life and help promote generational change.
Some former residents have even come back to the Ranch with their spouses to serve as house parents.
“The biggest measurable of fruit is someone that grew up somewhere and is willing to go back and give their life to it,” Brodie said. “[F]our out of our 40 [houseparents] grew up here and thought enough of it to go ‘I want to give my life to the younger version of me.”
"The second you drive into the Girls' Ranch, it's a reflection of just who God created women to be," Kelli said. "We're created in His image, and we reflect the beauty of who He is too and the majesty of who He is."
"When you pull into the Girls' Ranch, you feel that," she continued. "The homes are separated. It's pristine … It's quiet. You go to the Boys' Ranch, there's boys running around everywhere, and the homes are closer together. It's a true depiction of how God created boys to be wild at heart. That's what I love about the physical beauty of both places but also the physical differences of both places, how they are truly a reflection of how God created women to be and how God created men to be."
When John started Big Oak Boys' Ranch in 1974, the organization didn't yet have the capacity to serve girls. Big Oak lost a legal battle over a little girl, Shelley, who they were fighting to be able to house at the Boys' Ranch, and she returned to her father, who physically and sexually abused her and, when returned, her parents beat her to death several months later. Big Oak built the Girls' Ranch in her memory in 1988.
Though the boys and girls are on two separate ranches, they interact nearly daily at Westbrook Christian School, conveniently located halfway between both ranches.
Melissa Ellison started serving at Big Oak Ranch after meeting John several times, first while she was a student at the University of Montevallo and again after she got married and became an educator.
Ellison met her husband at church when she was in college, and they had two children together. After that, they started volunteering at the Boys’ Ranch as volunteer relief parents, couples who fill in by staying in the home during times when houseparents take time away.
“From there, it got harder and harder to leave,” Ellison said. “We fell in love with the ministry and just the boys at the time.”
During one spring break, Ellison and her husband kept a house of girls in the home that eventually became their own.
“That summer, we moved here,” Ellison said. “We’re here full-time now.”
Ellison’s husband is a jack of all trades and worked in construction, did electrical work and even served in a youth ministry before coming to the Ranch. Ellison said that her husband’s skills prove useful in parenting their two biological children and the household of girls they gained at Big Oak. She said her teaching experience helps too.
“Working with kids, even classroom management, but mostly just even building relationships with your students, it would end there,” Ellison said. “Here, it doesn’t end.”
Ellison and her husband do a devotion with the children every morning. They also have a homework hour when they first get home from school. On Christmas, they throw a birthday party for Jesus and try to find fun activities the children enjoy that everyone can do together, like having a movie night or playing board games. They attend church together on Sundays, celebrate birthdays and support the children in various extracurricular activities.
“It’s just like any other family. It’s just a lot bigger,” Ellison said.
The first five girls the Ellisons had when they first moved to the Ranch are now young adults. One is about to earn her bachelor’s degree at Samford.
Ellison said her biggest challenge is organizing time to give each child the attention they deserve.
“Naturally, the fact that they’re living in a home with not their blood mom and dad, you know there’s the challenge like it wasn’t supposed to be this way,” Ellison said. “God didn’t intend for it to have to be this way. It’s challenging for the child even to buy in and settle to where they get to the point to where they actually thrive and understand, so we just keep modeling family and living out our promises that we will love them, we will never lie to them, we will stick with them and that there are boundaries.”
Houseparents at Big Oak Ranch are required to take one weekend away each month. Typically, houseparents rely on volunteer resource parents. Resource parents take in individual children for the weekend instead of coming to the Ranch to fill in for houseparents. This way, the children have a personal relationship with another family, who really step in as extended family members while their houseparents rest and restore.
The Ranch vets house, resource and relief parents thoroughly. In fact, according to Brodie, the house-parent application process is very long and strenuous.
In 2014, Big Oak Ranch set two goals: provide the children it serves with naturally raised beef and instill in them the confidence to use their gifts to serve others.
That’s why they created Big Oak Cattle.
Big Oak boys and girls now have the opportunity to learn how to ride and care for horses and to complete an 8-week wrangler program where they learn to care for livestock.
Some of the children become Head Wranglers and receive a calf of their own. The child then watches the cattle market to determine which time is the best to sell. When they do finally make the sale, they pay back the ranch according to its costs and then get to put the rest toward savings or making a worthwhile investment like purchasing a car.
One of Big Oak Ranch’s four foundational promises to the children it serves is that it will stick with them. That’s why the Ranch created ASCEND, a program to help 18 to 22-year-olds raised at the Ranch successfully transition into adulthood.
ASCEND grants these young adults a fully-funded college or skilled trade education. Though the young men and women are required to work at least 15 hours a week for a local employer and pay rent each month, ASCEND participants can earn their accumulated rent payments back, which they can use to invest in their new adult life.
Children are introduced to ASCEND in the spring of their ninth-grade year. As they enter ASCEND and higher education, they receive instruction on essential life skills and spiritual, professional and personal development.
Big Oak Ranch is doing everything it can to help children in need, yet there are still children suffering from abuse and neglect around the country and the world. Through its Planting Oaks program Big Oak Ranch helps combat this problem by resourcing and equipping similar independently-functioning organizations around the United States.
Big Oak Ranch conducts training sessions with Planting Oaks partners and walks them through the process of obtaining 501c3, acquiring land and much more. Through this, Big Oak also builds a network of Christ-centered ministries. As of now, Planting Oaks has 86 partners in 31 states, which have been able to serve over 4,000 children.
Learn more about Big Oak Ranch by visiting its website here.
Individuals and corporations can also contribute to Big Oak Ranch in a variety of ways. Donors can give one-time gifts or sponsor a child online. They can also honor a deceased loved one by participating in the Ranch’s memorial program.
Professionals such as doctors, dentists and lawyers can provide in-kind services to the Ranch by contacting Robin O’Leary at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To connect with the author of this story or to comment, email email@example.com or find him on Twitter and Facebook.
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