To any passerby, the 200 acres lining either side of County Road 72 may seem like any other Alabama farm.
On one side of the road, a traditional red barn stands in stark contrast to a baby blue sky, and cows mull around rich, green grass common to the countryside. On the other, there is a number of quaint houses, buildings and gardens, and a large pond sits at the bottom of a hill.
It’s a tranquil place. It’s the Tallapoosa County Girls Ranch in Camp Hill, Alabama, a United Way agency that serves as a home for girls ages 6 to 18 who have been abused, neglected or abandoned.
Jimmy Harmon, director of the Girls Ranch, said many people have false perceptions of the ranch. He stressed that the ranch deals with parents’ issues — not those of the young women.
“A lot of people think of the Girls Ranch as a place where the kids out here are juveniles or delinquents or kids who have been in trouble, and that couldn’t be further from the truth,” Harmon said. “They’re abused, neglected or abandoned kids. They just need an opportunity in life.”
Harmon said they provide as much structure for the ranch’s tenants as possible. Girls are expected to do chores around the house and the ranch, they have nightly required study time and they are given resources like tutors to help them keep their grades up.
“Last semester we had 18 kids,” Harmon said. “Their cumulative GPA was a 3.46.”
Harmon said they also teach the girls practical life skills such as how to cook, balance a food budget and change a tire.
“We want to be able to give people a hand up in life, not a handout,” Harmon said. “We want to enable them to do the things that we do here and that we do well. We want to be teachers.”
Harmon said the ranch emphasizes making the girls’ situation as normal and comfortable as possible. The staff and girls keep the ranch looking nice to give the girls a home they can take pride in, thus creating a homey environment rather than an institutional one.
“Because they deserve that,” Harmon said. “They’ve never had a home.”
To further this homey feel, girls are allowed to invite friends who don’t live on the ranch to spend the night with them, they can earn a cell phone when they start high school and are given a number of other freedoms that many girls did not expect when coming to the ranch.
Harmon said another vital piece of building their “normal” is the family arrangement in each of the three houses on the ranch.
A married couple and their biological children live in each house with the girls. The couple acts as the girls’ parents and models a healthy relationship for the girls to observe.
The girls refer to their house parents as “mom” and “dad.” Like a normal family unit, their house parents are the ones responsible for granting permission to spend the night with friends, deciding punishments and assigning household responsibilities.
Harmon said this is important for the girls because many have come from situations where they weren’t taught how families typically operate and act. Though it’s crucial the girls see what healthy married relationships look like in the good times, it’s even more critical to see disagreements in relationships handled maturely.
“If there is an argument, mom and dad don’t hit, throw things or get inebriated and beat on the kids,” Harmon said. “They have conversations, and they work things out.”
Harmon gave the example of one girl who lives on the ranch whose mother and stepfather were both alcoholics. One night, her mother was at work, and her stepfather raped her. Soon after, her stepfather bragged to her stepbrother about his actions, and her stepbrother raped her, too.
Harmon said in situations like this, it’s impossible for girls to know what a father’s role in the home is.
“They don’t want a daddy. They had a daddy, and now they’re done,” Harmon said. “So it’s really important for our dads, the men on this property, to teach our kids what appropriate love is — what a dad is supposed to be.”
House parents work for 12 days on and four off. On the off days, relief parents live in a room designated for them and serve as the stand-in house parents.
Christal Prater, a relief parent for one of the houses, said the house parents truly treat the girls as their own.
“Their [biological] children are like their brothers and sisters,” Prater said. “It’s pretty much one big family.”
Avery, a sophomore in high school who has lived on the ranch for three years, said she was shocked when she moved to the ranch. She said she had friends in other group homes who told her life was heavily controlled, and they weren’t allowed to be “normal teenagers.”
“It’s a lot different here,” Avery said. “It’s a very beautiful place.”
Madison, a senior in high school who has lived on the ranch for almost two years, said when she moved to the ranch, everyone’s kindness surprised her most.
“They were welcoming,” Madison said. “I never felt like the black sheep of the family.”
Ashley, also a high school senior, has lived on the ranch for eight months. She said she too was startled at how lenient, kind and friendly the ranch environment is.
Avery, Madison and Ashley all shared stories about life on the ranch with amusement.
Avery pointed out the ranch dog, a happy, medium-sized mutt named Mama Dog. A then employee at the ranch found Mama Dog with a broken paw. Now, Mama Dog has lived at the ranch longer than any of the girls.
The employee took Mama Dog to the humane society, only to have Mama Dog escape and return to the ranch. After this happened several times, it became apparent Mama Dog was determined to stay. No one has challenged the friendly critter since.
Madison told stories of mischievous ranch parents telling the girls ghost stories and hiding to scare them, occurrences that always end in laughter.
Ashley told stories of intense “capture the flag” games between houses and the healthy rivalry that exists between them.
Avery made sure to acknowledge the people they credit with these stories, the ranch employees. The girls agreed the ranch employees certainly aren’t there for the pay.
“You don’t come here for the money. You come here because God has laid it on your heart, and you love these girls,” Avery said. “You love us.”
The Plainsman has changed the names of the young women living at the ranch because they are minors.