In the early 1980s, it was rare that a father would obtain sole custody of a child, much less a baby girl. I was very young when my mother left me with my father. Thankfully, my grandmother stepped in to assist raising me. The majority of my younger years, I lived in the small town of Marshalltown, Iowa. My father was a truck driver at that time and my grandmother often required the aid of family and friends to help with caring for me. We lived in various places, moving often. At the age of 6 or 7, we lived in South Carolina.
My dad worked as a mechanic and I recall rising at dawn to make our lunches and prepare both of us for the day. I was always an hour early to school, and sometimes more, so the janitor would greet me to let me in. After school, I would ride the trolley around town until my father’s shift was over. By this age, I had already established my independence. I had an aunt and uncle in Gadsden that graciously opened their home to me as my father struggled to maintain steady employment or found himself needing professional psychiatric care.
Fast forward a few years, and the lack of consistency and oversight drove me to be an incredibly angry teenager. I rebelled, big time. My school grades were tanking. My attitude was that of a “know-it-all” and I was spiraling out of control. When I was 14, I ran away from home. Once found, I was transferred to a local youth shelter in Gadsden. I stayed there for six weeks, and I wasn’t allowed to be outside as I was a flight risk. Family members pleaded with me to return home. Unbeknownst to me, my family reached out to Big Oak Ranch. I left the shelter in Gadsden, and a police officer escorted me to this unfamiliar place in Springville, Alabama – the Girls' Ranch. The ride in the back of that police car would be the ride that most likely saved my life.
I arrived at the Girls’ Ranch as a scared, broken, and angry teenager. Like many of my ranch brothers and sisters, I had witnessed and experienced more than my fair share of abuse and neglect. Thankfully, that angry teenager didn’t deter Larry and Beverly Elliott. Instead, they accepted the challenge and stood by me as I worked out all my rage. Their go-to for me to remove rage was for me to step outside of our home and scream at the top of my lungs. I am loud, but luckily there were what felt like hundreds of acres surrounding the Girls’ Ranch. Under their care, I began to blossom. My school grades improved, I was able to take part in sports, and I gained confidence. I finally felt safe. I had structure for the first time in my life. These were all the things I longed for. Mom and Dad Elliot taught me how to drive a stick shift and manage money. My Ranch family experienced several vacations such as camping trips, Disney World, Atlanta, and skiing in Colorado. Ultimately, they taught us that hard work pays off.
After time, my houseparents were called to serve at another ministry. I truly admired them, and I continue to find happiness in many outdoor activities that I had experienced with them. Other houseparents stepped in to help transition me into a new home with the Neelys. Through the adjustment of new houseparents, Ranch staff stepped in to our home, helping my Ranch sisters and me. Through this change, my world felt upside-down again, but it really wasn’t. God was speaking all along.
With nearly three years of family devotionals at Big Oak and involvement in church and choir, I was able to better understand God’s love. Witnessing the sacrifice that houseparents make to follow God’s call of serving at Big Oak Ranch is a true testament of that love. Houseparents are heroes to many children, including myself.
Despite having houseparents who showed love, care and concern for me, during my senior year, I found myself discontent and confused about what path to take. Just a few months from high school graduation, my dad moved back to Gadsden and I moved back in with him to finish school there. I was eager to live my life and take on the world. But after only eight months of living with my father, he kicked me out. I was barely 18 and back to being independent and alone, but this time, equipped with life lessons and a clearer understanding of my potential from my time at the Ranch.
The stability, consistency, and accountability from the staff at the Ranch gave me a solid foundation and an example of how good life could be. I credit my success throughout adulthood to my experience at Big Oak. I will forever be grateful that I was given a chance and look forward to seeing how, I too, can serve God and His children through Big Oak Ranch.
When asked to share my “A Life Changed” story, I wasn’t sure if I would know where to start or if my story would be of any value. To recall life events that made me who I am would be emotional and challenging to write for everyone to read. My journey through adulthood has entailed 24 years in the telecommunications industry. It began at Gadsden State Community College, where I obtained a two-year degree in Telecommunications. From there, I have been appointed to various positions and proved my skillset in this constantly changing, competitive industry.
A few years ago, I decided to continue my education by completing my undergraduate degree in Business Administration. Obtaining a 4-year degree had always been a goal of mine. I am now working for the same company I have been with since 2011. My successful career can be attributed to my self-determination and perseverance. I have never backed away from a challenge, and I continuously set goals for myself. Recently, I was nominated for the Prestigious Service Excellence Award at my company. This award highlighted my ability to bring people together, put customers first and collaborate between internal and external entities.
Along with the fulfillment of accomplishing personal goals, I am also a dog mom to two rescue dogs whom I adore. Charlie Brown is a 12-year-old Shepherd mix and Cassidy is a 10-year-old Rhodesian Ridgeback mix. Both pups have brought me much joy and constant companionship. I also enjoy traveling and the outdoors, whether it involve camping, hiking, biking, boating or kayaking. If I am not having an adventure, you can find me cooking, remodeling, or tinkering with my late dad’s 1968 Oldsmobile 442. My list of hobbies and interests are ever-growing, and I thrive to be challenged.
Much love to all of my BOR brothers and sisters!
Mom and Dad Elliot with Michelle and some of her housesisters in front of the Thompson Home.
Michelle, #14, playing basketball for WCS in 1993
Michelle, Jonathan, and Stacy at the 1993 Big Oak Family Beach Trip!
Michelle with Mom and Dad Elliot and the rest of the Thompson Home in 1994
Michelle and Mrs. Greer at 1996 WCS graduation
Sabrina, Jonathan, Kelly, and Michelle at the 1996 WCS prom
Stacy and Michelle at the 2023 Big Oak Family Reunion.
Michelle with many of her Big Oak family at the 2022 Family Reunion.
Michelle, with her dogs, Charlie and Cassidy, enjoying a visit to the Girls’ Ranch Lake this summer.