“Please except me to the Girls Ranch… Please give me a chance. Everywhere I’ve been they din’t want me or they were mean to me so I understand if you don’t want me because nobody else does….My dad did bad stuff to me and my brother that I’m not proud about--drugs…through us up against the wall…I need a permante home because I’ve been bounced back and forth 10X from house to house…you gave my brother a chance…I think I would love the BIG Aok Ranch…” (Excerpts from an actual letter written by a little girl to the Big Oak Ranch).
John Croyle carefully pulled the original notebook sheet out of his pocket and slowly unfolded it as he handed it over at the start of our interview. He carries it as a reminder of why he does what he does. He carries it so that he won’t forget that there is always another child out there who needs help. He carries it as a tangible illustration to others of the difference that their support is making. And he carries it to remember why his crucial decision to turn down a potentially lucrative NFL career, ignore the initial teasing of his teammates at the University of Alabama and follow the dream that God placed in his heart, has changed the lives of more than 1,800 children over the past 36 years at the Big Oak Ranch.
The Big Oak Ranch is a home for “orphaned, neglected, abused and homeless”children — all given a chance by John Croyle, who says that he has “never looked back.”
At the University of Alabama, John was a vital member of the team that won the first of three National Championships that decade — a team that included such NFL notables as John Hannah, Richard Todd, Wilbur Jackson and Sylvester Croom. But John Croyle was not destined for the NFL. God had much bigger and more important plans for the man that legendary Coach Bear Bryant described: “When you start talking about John you need first to consider things a lot deeper than size and talent....He's quite a man.”
He is quite a man. And he is married to quite a woman. Tee Croyle is the quiet strength and support behind John’s desire to provide, “a Christian home for children needing a chance.”
“God has called each of us to our roles, and we are both comfortable in those roles,” she says. And it is easy to see what outstanding complements they are to one another — different, but equally important and effective.
Tee is mom to daughter Reagan, a former basketball player and Homecoming Queen at the University of Alabama who serves as the Childcare Team Director at Big Oak; and son Brodie, a record-setting quarterback at the University of Alabama, now playing for the Kansas City Chiefs.
Tee’s an accomplished teacher to the kids at Westbrooke Christian School owned by Big Oak, with several students who have made perfect scores on their SAT tests. Like her husband, Tee is smart, dedicated, has a warm smile, gracious personality and encouraging spirit. John credits their successful partnership to marrying “my best friend.”
One would need to come home to their best friend after seeing what John and Tee Croyle have seen through the years -- children raped, beaten, neglected and ignored. Children dropped off at the gate before the staff could even learn their name. One child found huddled and afraid in an empty railroad car. Another one’s legs dipped into a vat of boiling oil by their mother.
But these unimaginable horrors are only the beginning of the story of Big Oak. Moving beyond the past to embrace the future is the real message. As Tee told me, “It’s impossible to do this without faith. These kids have taught us to love…and they dream of a family.”
John Croyle’s philosophy of faith, parenting, marriage and life are simple principles. When asked how he stays focused on overcoming struggles and following what God has called him to do, he has some sage advice for “keeping your compass on True North.” He likens the journey to driving on an interstate:
“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.
The oldest former resident of the ranch is now 55 years old and a grandfather. Big Oak family members are high school and college graduates, military personnel, and alumni in “just about any profession you can name.” This fall there will be 23 Big Oak kids in college. Most residents refer to their house parents as “Mom and Dad” and come “home” to Big Oak for holidays and celebrations long after they leave the ranch.
They are the “fruits” that motivated John and Tee Croyle to keep going even when they weren’t sure where the next penny would come from. And through it all, Tee told me they learned “when you are doing what God has called you to do, then God provides.”
Often His provision came in the form of other modern-day miracles. But part of faith is responding when God calls, and He often calls in unexpected ways.
In 1985, John and Tee crossed paths with a 12-year-old girl named Shelley who would forever change their lives and the lives of many more children to come. By this time, John had been rescuing boys for several years and was well known in the family courts around Gadsden, AL.
Shelley had been taken away from her parents for horrific abuse that included not only beatings, but also the trauma and betrayal of being held down by her mother while her father raped her. When John learned that a judge was considering sending Shelley back to such a deplorable situation, he pleaded with him to allow Shelley to come and live with Tee and their family. He told the judge that if he sent her back, Shelley would be dead within 6 months.
But for reasons unknown, John’s heartfelt request was denied. She was sent back to her parents and as John told me, “I was wrong -- her father beat her to death only 6 weeks later.”
John and Tee promised God that with His help, they would find a way to prevent this happening again and in 1988, the Big Oak Girl’s Ranch opened its doors and its heart to girls who need safety and love. The long and winding road leading to the ranch is appropriately named “Shelley Drive.”
John says that everything on his desk could be cleared away except for 2 things. One is an article about parents who were convicted of chaining and starving to death their 13-year-old son. Like the letter he carries in his pocket from the little girl wanting “a chance,” it never lets him forget the importance of the work of Big Oak. The other is a piece of paper with these three questions that keep him firmly on “the right road”:
1. What has God called you to do?
2. Are you doing it?
3. What is the fruit of question 1 and 2?
At a recent annual Appreciation Day, I was fortunate to see for myself the fruit of what God called John to do. Walking among the children living at the ranch, watching them cling to him like a modern-day “Pied-Piper” as Tee so appropriately put it, seeing the light in their eyes, the smiles on their faces and the hearing the delight in their voices as they showed me around their homes, proved that the unspeakable horrors they have experienced have been replaced by unrestrained joy.
In one house alone, I met two artists, a musician and an athlete. All accomplished, intelligent, smiling, polite young men, eager to share their hopes, dreams and plans for a future. A future now attainable because they were given that chance. And in case you were wondering, the little girl who wrote that letter also got her chance. The miracles of Big Oak continue for the next generation of children.
For more information about Big Oak Ranch, please visit: BigOak.org
Deborah J. Thompson is a writer, speaker, artist and Stephen Minister. Her articles are published by Crosswalk.com and "The Fish" family of Christian radio station websites around the country. She shares "Reflections" on Life, Relationships and Family on her website, www.inspiredreflections.info. And she is working on her first book, Your Life, Your Choice--5 steps to Peace. Join her on Twitter/InspireReflectand Facebook/DailyInspiredReflections.