By Hannah Lester
Almost a month ago, a tragedy took eight lives from the Tallapoosa County Girls’ Ranch. But yesterday, hundreds gathered at Church of the Highlands East Campus in Auburn to remember their names, share stories and worship together.
“We’re here to celebrate the lives of eight young people that are no longer with us here on earth,” said Michael Smith, CEO of the Alabama Sheriffs Youth Ranch. “But we know where they are.”
Four ranch girls lost their lives, along with Director Candice Gulley’s two children and two nephews.
Gulley was the only survivor of the van involved in the accident. Despite the pain of losing her two children, two nephews and four of the girls she worked with, Gulley spoke Thursday to the gathered community.
“Everyone of these children I have had the pleasure of worshipping beside,” she said. “I have had the honor to stand back in the back of the room, whether it was at the chapel, at the ranch, or in our learning center, or in the gym or in the sanctuary, I have had the pleasure to stand back and listen to their voices lift up to the heavens. It was like heaven on earth to hear my children worship and praise God.
“I have had people come up to me and hug my neck and say, ‘you’re such a strong woman.’ No honey, I’m not strong, my God is.”
The ranch played a slideshow with pictures of the young lives and those gathered worshipped to a song that was special to the girls, My Stay, along with the songs Amazing Grace and Waymaker.
One of Church of the Highlands Pastors, Wren Aaron, shared a message about grief with those gathered and referenced Matthew 5:4: “Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted.”
Following the service, eight doves were released on the lawn, in front of an American flag, suspended from an Auburn Fire Truck. One dove for each of the lives lost.
“The legacy of those young people that we lost will go on living forever at the Alabama Sheriff’s Youth Ranch helping more children and young people than ever,” Smith said.
Despite the pain, there was a common theme of hope in the room.
“As we reflect on the devastating tragedy that brings us here today, we are filled with hope as we remember the lives of our family members who left us all too soon,” said Greg Copeland, a volunteer at the Ranch and member of the lIving Stones Community. “We are filled with hope as we carefully watch how God has used, and will use, their early departure to bring many sons and daughters into this kingdom.”
A few of the girls’ houseparents, volunteers and family friends shared encouraging words and stories about the children.
Hayley was a teenager who loved to care for others, care for animals and take on all kinds of projects.
“She had a big personality, a big imagination and best of all a big heart,” said Ruth Neuhoff, who was one of Hayley’s houseparents. “… Hayley had a beautiful prayer life and always prayed for others … We know that Hayley is in paradise with Jesus and we will be with her again.”
Ben and Bella were Gulley’s children who both had hearts for service and hearts for God, Copeland said.
“I’m excited to share with family gathered here that Bella and Ben were pleasing God physically, mentally, emotionally and most important, spiritually, immediately before they went home to be with their heavenly family,” he said.
Gulley also lost her two nephews, Josiah and Nicholas in the accident. The day of the service, July 15, would have been Josiah’s birthday.
“[He] was such a bright light with a smile that wold light up a room, light up a dark room,” said another speaker.
Nicholas was the baby of the family who loved video games and dogs.
“Nicholas would come to visit at the ranch, however, it could only be for a really short period of time because he aways needed to get home to his mom,” the speaker said. “He was a true momma’s boy.”
Makenzie, Dana and Tia’s house parents, Eric and Stephanie Strong, also served as Hayley’s other house parents.
“I saw these girls grow in their walk with the Lord, which is definitely the most important thing,” Eric said. “In May, Tia and Hayley were both baptized right there at the ranch.”
Tia loved hard-work and lived with a repentant heart. Dana was a musician. She played instruments, enjoyed music and wrote songs.
“She was very unselfish, very giving,” Stephanie said.
Makenzie cared for others and gave her time to the other girls and had an artistic spirit.
“My children, whether they shared my blood or they didn’t, they were my children,” Gulley said. “… They’ve been in the presence of the King. They are worshiping Him face to face right now.”