Alabama’s Big Oak Ranch persists during COVID-19 pandemic

Alabama’s Big Oak Ranch persists during COVID-19 pandemic
Life -- and schoolwork -- go on at Big Oak Ranch, despite the changes brought by COVID-19. (contributed)

Brodie Croyle only thought he faced a tough challenge from NFL and SEC defenses during his days as a star quarterback from 2003 to 2012.

The former Alabama and Kansas City Chiefs QB suffered a series of injuries from high school through his retirement from football eight years ago. But even those trials and tribulations couldn’t have prepared him for the threats of a pandemic.

In 2014, Croyle took over the signal caller role for Big Oak Ranch, coming in from the sidelines for his retiring father, John, himself a standout player for the Crimson Tide in the 1970s. John in 1974 founded Big Oak, opting to take care of orphaned and hurting children rather than begin a lucrative pro football career.

Between 150 and 160 children live on Big Oak Ranch’s campuses in Gadsden and Springville. (contributed)

Today, Brodie and his staff of 53 childcare and administrative employees are sheltered in place in the many buildings that compose the two campuses of one of Alabama’s biggest children’s homes. More than 2,000 boys and girls have come through the privately funded, religious-based facility in the past 46 years.

“We have limited our homes at each ranch to only leaving out of necessity as we try to self-quarantine the best we can while also encouraging everyone to realize and seize opportunities to show our children how to operate in faith instead of fear,” Croyle said.

Big Oak Boys’ Ranch near Gadsden sits on 374 acres with 12 two-story residential homes led by married couples, two resource homes, a retreat home, food shed, equine center, gym, swimming pool and children’s center. Up to eight boys live in each home. Residents earn points through chores, allowing them to purchase items at the Outfitters store.

The Girls’ Ranch near Springville sits on 325 acres with nine two-story residential homes, two retreat homes, a food shed, equine center, gym, swimming pool, children’s center and the Boutique store where residents can redeem their work points. Up to eight girls live in each of the homes with married couples serving as mom and dad.

On average, there are 150-160 children living at Big Oak.

“Undoubtedly, the health of our children and staff is at the forefront of every effort,” Croyle said. “We have closed the administrative offices at both the Girls’ Ranch and Boys’ Ranch, but our team continues to work remotely as we serve our children, staff, supporters, college kids and others seeking to plant homes for children through this fluid season.”

Big Oak has instituted strict disinfecting procedures for all incoming shipments and donations, while implementing fun new activities to build morale and maintain optimism among the residents.

Unlike most children’s homes, Big Oak owns a cow-calf operation with about 100 pair to feed both ranches. After a sixth-month training program, children who wish to help raise and care for cattle can earn money toward savings, vehicles and other desired items. Croyle said the unexpected increase in food needs since the early dismissal of all schools statewide isn’t causing major concern for the ranches.

“Thankfully, we are still getting donations from food vendors that come in weekly, and we do not anticipate those stopping,” he said. “Big Oak Cattle is supplying all of our red meats needs, which is a huge blessing. God has been preparing us for this season, so we remain confident in that.”

Croyle said the disruption to the normal education schedule for all children is being met at Big Oak with online classes for everyone and by remote tutoring for some students. He said planning for senior high school students “has increased significantly” as they move toward graduation outside their schools.

It costs about $1,000 for each child every month to provide food, clothing, housing, insurance and other necessities at Big Oak Ranch. Croyle said that’s one thing the coronavirus can’t change.

“Like many nonprofit organizations, and businesses, we are operating out of necessity when it comes to purchases, construction and maintenance,” Croyle said. “However, we continue to uphold policy that represents a fundamental standard at Big Oak: No child’s care is impacted by the amount of donations we are receiving.”

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