February 12, 2018
By Marlee Moore
Thanksgiving 1996. Melisa Montgomery — 12 years old, broken, hurting — was one day into a 7-year stretch living at the Tallapoosa County Girls Ranch. She ate the requisite Turkey Day meal with strangers and had a choice — embrace ranch life or trash her chance at a fresh start.
Over 21 years later, Montgomery gives thanks for her life-altering experience by supplying cattle feed and minerals to the ranch.
“I loved the people and what they taught me,” said Montgomery, 33, who owns Lee County Feed & Seed in Beauregard. “If I didn’t come to the ranch as an eye opener, I would have a terrible relationship with my family. I wouldn’t have my husband and kids."I know without a doubt I would be on a different, terrible path.”
For the average Joe, the Camp Hill ranch, one of four across the state, might surface images of juvenile delinquents, a picture Jimmy Harmon contradicts.
“We are a home for abused, neglected and abandoned kids,” said Harmon, a second-generation ranch director raised on the Baldwin County Boys Ranch. “We are the orphanage of our generation.”
The ranch is home to around 18 girls — victims of abuse or children of addicts or incarcerated parents. Group homes with up to 10 girls are led by couples like Thomas and Candice Gulley.
During six years as house parents, the Gulleys nurtured 66 girls, only four of whom previously had positive male role models.
“They come from these broken places, but if you can introduce them to the savior, he can heal that brokenness,” said 36-year-old Candice. “Instinctively, you want to nurture them and make up for what they’ve lost, but they have to start from here and grow. Structure is something they crave, and they don’t even realize it.”
Lending structure are 5:30 a.m. wake-up calls, devotions and limited TV time. There are also daily chores, including caring for horses, chickens and a 15-head cattle herd. Cattle are vital to the ranch, which has undergone a revival since Harmon arrived three years ago.
Animals teach the girls responsibility and are a boon to the ranch’s finances. With monthly food funds totaling $60 per girl, a herd of just 25 replacement heifers could bolster the budget by up to $15,000 annually, Harmon said.
Thanks to farmers like Chris Langley, Harmon’s dream of revitalizing the ranch is a reality. The Chambers County farmer has provided hay, built fence, supplied crews to clear land and furnished a bull.
“When you call it a ranch, you need livestock to go with it,” Langley said. “It’s amazing how kids can unload their thoughts and talk to an animal like they won’t to a human.”
Other farmers pitched in, too, donating culled dairy calves and hosting fundraisers.
“When we run into something we don’t know, we call a farmer,” Harmon said. “For every dollar we don’t spend on our calves, it’s more food on the table.”
That money benefits girls like Teya, who came to the ranch in 2014 because of verbal and emotional abuse.
“I cried I was so relieved,” said the now-20 year old. “You know how people say the weight was lifted off their shoulders? When I got here, I could let it all go. I was free.”
When Teya arrived, she desperately needed knee surgery. Within months, she had the surgery, which her birth father had ignored, and she found a new calling — helping others as a physical therapist.
She also gained a new family. Today, she calls her first house parents Mom and Dad.
“No matter your age, you’re responsible for something and are always learning,” said Teya, who plans to attend Auburn University after completing her associate degree. “The younger you come here, the harder it is. But we’re being taken care of by people who love us.”
It’s a sentiment Montgomery echoes. The ranch allowed her to attend college, renewed family connections and introduced her to her future maid of honor in her wedding — her social worker.
“Even when I got in trouble, I loved the ranch,” she said. “They taught me to pick up my own pieces.”
The Tallapoosa County Girls Ranch is a United Way agency. For more information, visit boysandgirlsranches.org/Tallapoosa.