Candace Gulley is thankful Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey helped officially dedicate a memorial to eight Tallapoosa County Girls Ranch children Tuesday. But in Gulley’s mind, the memorial took on meaning when her husband Tommy helped design, construct and install the memorial in the months since the tragic death of Bella, Ben, Dana, Haley, Josiah, Makenzie, Nicholas and Tia.
“It was the thing he wanted to do,” Gulley said. “He wanted something here to be on display to represent our children. He worked with his buddy down in Mobile Alafab. Alafab donated all of the materials. Then their staff worked on lunch breaks and off time to build it.”
The memorial was erected in late summer across from the main entrance to the Girls Ranch.
“All of the dads on the ranch [installed] it,” Gulley said. “It was really good for them to put their hands on something and know it was going to be in memory of our kids.”
It was at that moment the memorial fully developed its meaning for Gulley.
“For me the memorial dedication happened that day when it went in the ground and I got to look at it,” Gulley said. “I get to look at it everyday from my office. I get to see it everyday lit up when we drive by and remember them. I also know there are a lot of hurting families along with me and my husband that needed to see that and have an opportunity to see how their children will be remembered.”
The memorial is the permanent structure to the tragic June 19 accident on Interstate 65 that took the lives of the eight children.Two of the children in the van were hers biologically but Gulley says they were all a blessing to her life.
“Some shared my blood, others didn't, they were all my children,” Gulley said.
Alabama Department of Human Resources (DHR) commissioner Nancy Buckner told the Gulleys, and others gathered for the memorial dedication, that a family exists at the Ranch.
“The glue that holds this family together is as strong if not stronger than that of blood relatives,” Buckner said. “This bond is forged by shared experiences overcoming hardship and unity with one another. You have shown what it means to be family and what it means to have faith.”
The accident allowed the story of the Girls Ranch to be told, how it helps the residents, who come to call the ranch home, walk a Godly path. Alabama Sheriff’s Ranches CEO Michael Smith said many stories of the Girls Ranch have been shared with him over the last six months but the one shared by an Alabama Department of Corrections official has struck him the most.
“He had an inmate who went to a guard and wanted to talk to the prison minister,” Smith said. “[The prisoner] went up to the prison minister and said, ‘... I had a daughter I didn’t deserve but she was in that van that day. Thanks to the ranches I know my little girl is in heaven. I want to give my life to God so I can be her father and see her again.’”
The Girls Ranch currently has 17 children residents and approximately 80 percent are in DHR’s foster care system. Foster children at the Ranch is nothing unusual.
“Three of the children that were in the van with me that day were children in the foster care system,” Gulley said.
Just having the governor and other officials at the Ranch Tuesday was a blessing to the girls according to Gulley.
“To have someone as high up, the highest level, to come here and honor those lives, that’s huge for us. A lot of the children here right now are in the foster care system,” Gulley said. “The person that is their guardian, the State of Alabama, is a faceless person to them. Today they will be able to set eyes on the person that heads the state’s DHR and the head of our state. For our girls, this will be a moment they will be able to put a bookmark on and a memory that they will be able to take with them long after their time here.”
Gulley told Ivey and Buckner their visit to the Ranch gave the residents a sense of value as the State of Alabama serves as their guardian.
“It is a faceless name,” Gulley said. “For you to be here today to represent, to give honor to our kids who were lost, but to continue looking after these [here now] is huge.”
The girls chatted with Ivey and Buckner, some joking with Buckner realizing she manages the state agency that cares for them, maybe seeking some treats.
The conversation was much like family funerals where friends and loved ones comfort those still here. It is the same kind of support Tallapoosa County has shown the Ranch since it opened more than four decades ago. Then, the community rallied to help construct homes -- after the accident the community rallied to see the ranch continue.
“To know the people in the community and around us are supporting us, not just financially, is huge,” Gulley said. “They have done that too and I didn’t have to worry about how to pay the power bill and keep things going. Just like when we have a loss in our own personal family, our friends and people in our community rally around us to help us stay afloat. Our community has done that in a huge way.”
The Girls Ranch has seen an increase in volunteerism helping with projects small and large across the 10 different buildings on the 200 acre farm.
Tuesday was Ivey’s first trip to the Girls Ranch.
“What I know and what I have seen today, you are all a family,” Ivey said. “To lose family in this way is just truly unimaginable to me. I’m truly impressed by your strength. What we saw rise out of tragedy was unity and love. Folks came together and asked what they could do. This is what our state is all about. Let us never forget the lives of the eight precious lives lost. It is an honor to be with you to celebrate their lives.”
Smith said the aluminum memorial with an oblique for each child lost June 19 and a cross will serve as a permanent reminder of the children lost in the accident, the children who came before to the Ranch, the children currently at the Ranch and those children of the future.
“The memorial will be there looking over this ranch,” Smith said. “It’s a place they loved and we love today. These young people will never be forgotten.”