“You can’t go forward by looking in the rearview mirror. You can’t read every billboard along the way. And the interstate is full of rest stops — make sure you are on the right road.”

His spiritual practice for staying connected to God and making sure he is on the right road is likewise simple and biblical. He lives by 2 Corinthians 5:9:Let this be our one ambition, whether at home or absent--to be pleasing unto him.”To John, this is a pretty straightforward directive: “You are either home, or you’re absent from home and either way, you’ve got to be pleasing.”

Life at Big Oak Ranch

The Big Oak Ranch, its founders, staff and the work they do there every single day are living examples of pleasing God.

They may be 35 miles apart but the 143 acres that make up the Boy’s Ranch and the 325 acres of the Girl’s Ranch share similar settings with majestic forests, clear lakes, and rolling hills and meadows. Horses graze in the abundant pastures, geese glide quietly on the surface of calm waters, deer roam freely throughout the woods, and the only sounds you hear are birds singing, children laughing and the occasional fish leaping out of their well-stocked lakes.

When a child comes to live at either the Boy’s or Girl’s Ranch, they move into a 6-bedroom, 4-bath brick home with siblings of various ages and a set of godly house parents who have made a long-term commitment to provide love, structure, discipline, and faith to the children entrusted to them.

The children learn that someone cares about them. They learn a work ethic and financial management. They learn to be part of a family and what that means. And they learn that God is an ever-present part of their lives. “Our house parents live their lives and their marriages in front of the kids and set a Godly example for them,” says Tee.

John gives every child who comes to the Ranch this assurance: “I love you. I’ll never lie to you. I’ll stick with you until you’re grown. There are boundaries — don’t cross them.” He believes these four promises cover the bedrocks to parenting a child: “love and emotional support, truth, security and discipline”.

All this started with a dream, obedience to God, faith, trust and no small number of miracles — which is how you often know that you are indeed on that right road.”

In 1974, John was honored with a $5,000 check from the Alabama Alumni Association in conjunction with “John Croyle Day” in Gadsden, AL. This became the first seed money for what would establish Big Oak. But John needed $50,000 for the down payment on the land he found for the Boys Ranch. A Birmingham businessman had pledged $15,000, but this still left John $30,000 shy of the amount he needed. And the owner of the land had given him only 48 hours to come up with the rest of the money.

Now even though Croyle had turned down the NFL, one of his teammates John Hannah had not. Hannah was a first-round draft pick for the New England Patriots and went on to play with them for 13 seasons. But on that March day in 1974, Hannah was just a college kid with the hope of a successful NFL career, a belief in what Croyle was trying to do, and as it just so happened, a $30,000 signing bonus. Hannah gave him the money, and the 23-year-old Croyle used that gift to give hundreds of kids the chance that they needed. This was the first of many miracles that are a part of the history and of daily life at the ranches.

The Children Who Have Been Given a Chance

There is a reason that the logo for the Big Oak Ranch is an oak tree with the words, “A Christian Home for Children Needing A Chance.”  There is a reason that the words “A Chance,”are located along the roots of that oak tree. “A Chance” is the foundation that Big Oak provides. The rest is up to the individual. As John says, “Choices create circumstances. Decisions determine your future.” And while there have been some who have not, the majority of the kids that come to the ranch have made the most of the chance they have been given, allowing John and Tee to bear witness to countless miracles throughout the years.