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Alabama Sheriffs Youth Ranches CEO Michael Smith

Healing process begins in wake of tragedy

By Michael Butler

"You couldn't make up a tragedy as severe as this," said Michael Smith, CEO of Alabama Sherrifs Youth Ranches, "but, we have to move forward. Thank goodness that we're a Christian organization and we love God."

On Saturday, June 19 at approximately 2:30 in the afternoon, 17 cars were involved in a horrific accident on I-65 in Butler County. Ten people were killed. Eight were youth from the Tallapoosa County Girls Ranch.

"Those eight children that perished that day, we know where they are - they're with God," Smith said. "They'll never have to worry about a home or anything again."

Two vans from the organization were returning from a beach trip. One of the vans was involved in the wreck driven by Tallapoosa County Girls Ranch Director Candice Gulley. Gulley was injured, but two of the girls who died were her daughters.

"Candice, who was the sole survivor in the accident, is doing much better," Smith said. "Please keep praying for Candice. She has a lot of rehab and a lot of healing to do - both mentally and physically."

The Youth Ranches oversee youth and put them in more stable living environments.

"They come from all walks of life," Smith said. "It could be from a troubled family that's not financially able to take care of their children. It could be grandparents who adopted and are now in their 80s trying to raise a teenager. We also have children who have been abused and come from a family of addiction, but they're not bad kids."

Teya with her husband Hunter

Teya Waites is a former rancher who is now a senior at Auburn University.

"I got to the ranch when I was 16. I'm 23 now," she said. "I came from a background with parents who really didn't show love and affection. It was verbal and mental abuse in the home. I was sent to a temporary home in Decatur and eventually got to the ranch which provided me a second chance and second family. Everyone there is part of my family now and forever. I couldn't be more thankful to have a place like this."

Waites is now married to her high school sweetheart and will graduate with a degree in Communications in August.

Over $500,000 has been raised since the accident. The outpouring of support has been visible in so many ways.

"The donations have come in," Smith added. "I've heard from people all over the country. People have embraced our branches. I got a call from Coach (Tommy) Tuberville praying for us. They had a moment of silence in the U.S. Senate for us.

"A little girl who's still at the ranch came up to me. She said, 'Look what I made Mr. Michael.' She had done a collage of pictures of her sisters. She wanted to get a poster made telling the ranchers to rest in peace. I have that hanging in our admin office in Tallapoosa County. It's just touching."

To make a donation, contact Smith at 334-850-0000.

"What's as important to us as the financial side is prayer. Continue to pray for our healing process, so that we can celebrate these children's lives. We are planning a Celebration of Life for all eight of our children sometime in the middle of July. There's a lot of positives that those ladies had. We're going to come back bigger and stronger than ever."