“During my childhood, my mother fought but she could never truly win the battle against addiction and depression. Nor could my father, as he struggled with mental illness and addiction as well. It was typical for him to be home for a couple months only to disappear for a year or two. I attended seven different schools before the 4th grade, often packing one suitcase and leaving everything else behind.
My mother always had a new job, nothing was steady and I didn’t really understand why. I remember her saying, ‘I promised to give up alcohol a long time ago so that you won’t be taken away.’ During those seven years my mom was sober, my biological sister and I were often latchkey kids. My mother couldn’t afford daycare so she would drop us off at the library and tell us to stay quiet, to read and to not bother the librarians. Because of this, I became an avid reader, often reading fictional stories about children who grew up in orphanages, boarding schools, or who were adopted. I began to get the idea that growing up away from my parents might be a better solution to escape the reality I was living in.
At nine years old, I realized my home was not a good place to live anymore. My mom was in and out of psychiatric treatment facilities. One day she left the hospital accompanied by a new boyfriend, who was also an alcoholic. I knew the moment that I saw the alcohol in the cupholder of her car that it was only a matter of time before I would be taken away – and I was scared to death. But I held on to hope for a place like those I read about. A place where I could be a kid. I remember the day I prayed for Big Oak Ranch – praying a simple prayer that any nine-year-old would pray: ‘Dear God, I want a new place to live. One where I can have a mom and a dad. I want to have a house with a trampoline, and horses, and a swimming pool. A lake where I can fish and a bunch of kids my age to play with. I don’t ever want to have to change schools again.’ That same day, my biological mom told me that she had found a new home for me. I knew God heard my prayer.
On the day my mother took me to Big Oak Ranch, I was amazed as I watched my prayer materialize in front of me. As we drove under the arches I saw the horses, then the swimming pool, the lake, and ultimately the home with a trampoline in front! I learned I was going to have a new mom and dad. I learned the school I was going to was an elementary, middle and high school so I would never have to go to a new school again. Everything I prayed for was there! God answered my prayer with Big Oak Ranch.
My houseparents, Steven and Christy Gum, showed me nothing but patience, kindness, and grace. I remember my understanding of love transforming as my housemom didn’t wrongly punish or humiliate me when I disobeyed. Rather, she showed me truth wrapped in incredible grace, and in doing so, introduced me to the Gospel. Together, we navigated rocky circumstances as I worked through what I had experienced before living with them. At first, I hid my battles with depression, terrified and determined not to make the same mistakes as my biological mother. Yet, the consistent love of my houseparents soon led me to open up, to be honest about what was going on internally. The Gums taught me that I didn’t have to earn their love, that they chose to love me no matter what. They and other staff at Big Oak connected me to the therapeutic support I needed.
The support of my Big Oak Family and a fantastic education at Westbrook Christian School led me to receive a full ride to Jacksonville State University. After graduating from undergrad, I went on to receive my Master’s in Clinical Nutrition at UAB, which also led me to meeting my husband at the library while studying for an exam. Matt and I now live near Destin, FL, where he works as a family nurse practitioner and I work at three long-term care facilities as a registered dietitian.
Every day I go to work, I think about Big Oak Ranch. Once, I had a resident’s family member call me and she said, ‘Thank you for doing for my mom what I couldn’t. I am forever grateful.’ In that moment, it hit me – the Ranch did for me what my biological mom couldn’t. I get to be family for my residents every day and take care of them when their families aren’t able to. In that moment, I had a new understanding of my relationship with my biological family and mother – one filled with the grace very similar to the grace I was shown by my houseparents. Without Big Oak, I cannot imagine where I would be. The influence and love of my houseparents, the teachers at Westbrook, Mary Graham, and the entire staff at Big Oak are all a huge part of the person I get to be every day for the people around me. And because of that, I am forever grateful.”