Eight children lost their lives Saturday. It’s tragic but those left behind have to figure out a way to carry on.
Alabama Sheriffs Youth Ranches CEO Michael Smith has been the face of the Tallapoosa County Girls Ranch since a van from the Girls Ranch was involved in a wreck and he readily admits he has struggled. Smith is close to all the ranchers and staff.
“To deal with grief we have to remember and celebrate the good things in life,” Smith told the board members of the Lake Martin Dadeville Area Chamber of Commerce Tuesday. “This tragedy is so horrible. It is tough.”
Smith had lunch with girls Tuesday who died Saturday and said it was fun, but it is what the girls did before the lunch that is helping him grieve. Friday as the girls were traveling to the beach they stopped at the administrative offices of Alabama Sheriffs Youth Ranches.
“I got a picture sent to me and I was like what is this?” Smith said. “They were all sitting around my desk in chairs with feet propped up. The caption was, ‘We are CEOs for the day.’ I don’t know if they were doing that for fun or if they thought I did that when I was at my desk.”
The photograph includes some of the children who died Saturday but what else the “sisters” left is what is special to Smith.
“On Monday before I go to the beach to take them out to lunch, I go by the office,” Smith said. “I looked around and each girl had written me notes on sticky notes and left them all around my office.”
Smith thought it was amusing at the time but those notes are now very special. Early Sunday morning after leaving the Baptist South Hospital, Smith went back to his office.
“I went back at 4 a.m. because I was having a tough time,” Smith said. “I read those notes and it was something.”
But that wasn’t the only memory Smith remembered and is helping him grieve, learning to live life with the eight children from the ranch family.
“They wanted me to ride in the Dadeville Christmas parade,” Smith said. “I have all those pictures from the Dadeville Christmas parade. They get up there and they taught me how to shovel horse manure. I moved the horse manure to start with.
One of the girls looked at me and said, ‘You have to spread it.’ It was so wonderful. Remembering the good times is how you get through grief.”
Smith said the community has been great to the Girls Ranch. Reeltown has been home to the girls for school and has been great to the girls. The Dadeville community has helped too. The Lake Martin Dadeville Area Chamber of Commerce visited Smith and the ranch to make a donation but more importantly to let the Girls Ranch know everyone was praying for them. Smith said the chamber hasn’t been the only ones.
“I can’t tell you in words what this tragedy has done to our ranch,” Smith said. “They know they are part of this community. One of the things helping us get through this is this community. I have had so many people reach. The community has done so many things for us. It is absolutely amazing.”
Smith said the girls are doing different things to process their grieving. It started Saturday night when the van got back to the Girls Ranch. Counselors and ministers were there to help the staff and girls.
“We all grieve differently,” Smith said.
The oldest resident of the Girls Ranch spoke at the prayer time Sunday at Reeltown High School where she had just graduated. The ‘big sister’ pulled Smith aside Monday.
“‘Mr. Michael, look at what I did,’” Smith said the big sister said to him.
She had created a poster she wanted printed out of the girls who died.
“These are her girls, her sisters,” Smith said. “She created that. It’s photos of their good times.”
The beach trip will be a sore memory for some of the girls but Smith said the role of the ranches is trying to help those who come in the care of the ranches to escape.
“These girls are trying to break the cycle,” Smith said. “It is the first time some of these girls have seen the beach.
“Some of our girls are the first in their family to graduate high school. Some are the first in the family to get a chance to go to college or trade school.”
Just four weeks ago Smith signed the final check relieving the Alabama Sheriffs Youth Ranches from $1.3 million in debt it had less than two years earlier. Smith has hopes to make the system more sustainable.
“We are now starting plans to refurbish our homes here,” Smith said. “It doesn’t mean we have money to throw away because we don’t. Our goal at the ranches is to have one year of cash reserves by sometime in 2022 so that if something catastrophic happens we can run these ranches for a full year.”
Smith said 83 to 85 cents of every donation goes directly to the ranches. But the accident will try the ranch system again.
“You don’t budget for things like this,” Smith said. “You don’t have a Go Fund Me account. We have things to pay for. We have vans. I know God will provide.
“This ranch is my heart. We are going to continue to meet the needs of the young people who need our assistance.”
Donations can be made in many ways. Montgomery attorney Beverly Howard is a former resident of the Girls Ranch and established a Go Fund Me account to help many of the expenses. Donations can be made to the Lake Martin Area United Way (LMAUW). The organization has a designated fund meaning 100% of donations made to the United Way for the Girls Ranch will go to the ranch.
(LMAUW) and Rhonda Gaskins Century 21 office in Dadeville are drop off points for those wanting to donate items the ranch needs. Frozen meals are also welcomed for those times when the girls are hungry and not at a set feeding time.
LMAUW executive director Sharon Fuller said individual snacks would be great as are the household items on the ranch’s needs list.