By Kris Martins
In the outskirts of Opelika, a loose gravel road winds its way to a white antebellum house sitting on a brick foundation, overlooking acres of land around it. Four pillars line its front, framing a large, wooden double-door entrance. The porch is sprinkled with children’s motorcycles, scattered shoes and bicycles.
A children’s car rests on the front lawn. Off to the side sits a playground and swings.
On a Monday morning, Shelley Tuft was tidying up the living room. A vacuum cleaner stood at the front door and four stacks of folded clothes sat on the living room table. Two baskets full of toys hugged the wall near the front door.
The house is one where many have experienced love. Out of that building, Tuft and her husband,, Joe, run The Exodus Ranch, a nonprofit organization that assists children through a variety of situations — providing clothing, food, shelter and support. But its story is inseparable from a world of hurt, of which Shelley Tuft is no stranger.
When she was 8-years-old, Tuft’s family was heavily involved with a home for children in Columbus, Miss.
“My parents were both very involved in making sure that my sister and I knew that there were people that didn’t have the things that we had,” she said. Even her grandmother fed others out of her home.
As an adult, Tuft housed a teenage girl who was kicked out of her house because she wouldn’t have an abortion. Another time she kept a mother’s 8-year-old while the mother took care of her dying father.
Love is the greatest gift of all in Christianity, Tuft noted. While helping children, she began to see how people could be conductors of Christ’s love to the hurting.
“There are a lot of people out there that don’t have family that truly need somebody to care about them and let them know that they’re a special person,” she said.
The Mississippi native moved to Opelika in 2005 when her husband’s job brought him to the city. About four years later, Tuft said, God showed her and her husband the vision for The Exodus Ranch.
By the end of 2009, the Tufts estimated that about 30 children stayed at their house for at least one night or were still with them. Remember that this was in the midst of the “Great Recession.” They didn’t start out at their present location.
One October day in 2010, the Tufts were headed to the Opelika Sportsplex and Aquatic Center to take the children to play soccer. The trees had shed their leaves, and through the bare limbs, Tuft caught a glimpse of a tall white house.
She did some research and asking around, found the owner of the building, who lived in Florida. The owner asked for the mission statement of The Exodus Ranch, and after Tuft emailed it to her, a very positive response quickly landed back in her inbox.
“She contacted me right away and told me she had been praying for somebody to use the home to glorify the Lord through children,” Tuft said.
Still, nearly every part of the house needed repairs, and those repairs would cost money. So the Tufts and the board members of The Exodus Ranch put their prayers to work on the property. After the board members left the home following a prayer gathering, the Tufts’ phones started ringing.
The board members told them to look out their window. When the couple peaked outside, a rainbow hung in the sky. For Tuft, it was confirmation that she was headed in the right direction.
They bought the house.
Tuft asked others to pray for the needs of the house, and one by one — electricity, plumbing, cabinets — they were met. Some people gave $30 donations; others gave $100.
More than 4,500 people donated their time to repairing the house, leaving with splinters and bee stings. In one instance, a volunteer with a work group wrote a check for $25,000.
The Exodus Ranch became an official nonprofit in 2012. Its name came from a 13-year-old girl staying at the house. For several weeks she contemplated a name before coming to Tuft one night.
“She said, ‘Because in Exodus is where the Lord led the children of Israel out of slavery and into the promise land, and I think that that’s what He’s going to do for every child that comes to The Exodus Ranch,’” Tuft said.
There are 13 children living in the house now — girls and boys. There were seven at this same time last year. Donations have largely gone to restoring the house, though some also contributed to needs such as clothes, food and electricity. Three of Tuft’s five children live in the home.
Sometimes children come to The Exodus Ranch because of a temporary need, like a pair of jeans or a car ride. Other times they need to escape a domestic dispute between the adults in their home.
A pair of Opelika grandparents would not have been able to care for their two grandchildren if it hadn’t been for The Exodus Ranch.
“They just saved our lives,” said the grandmother, who asked to remain anonymous.
The Tufts have housed her grandchildren for nearly a year, creating what the grandmother described as a loving environment for the children.
“If (they) could not be with me, I would want them with Shelley — let me put it that way,” she added.
The Opelika grandmother was sleeping only one to two hours while caring for her sick grandchildren a couple of winters ago, when she realized she couldn’t handle the physical stress.
She rocked and prayed one night, realizing it was time to ask for help. The children’s parents were dealing with drug abuse, she was nearly 70, and she needed another option.
Through a string of contacts, she got in contact with Shelley Tuft. After a few months, the grandchildren moved into The Exodus Ranch.
There is no age limit for the children the nonprofit serves nor is there a limit on how long they can stay. Tuft said she tries to show the children what it means to be in a family. With each child, she strives to let them know they’re loved.
“Just for them to know that no matter what they go through, what life brings them, that there’s somebody that loves them,” she said with tears in her eyes.
“It was really overwhelming in the beginning,” she said.
But she still thinks of the joy she’s witnessed in the children over the years — the moments that make it all worth it.
One girl had gone through the ninth grade three times, and after the Tufts home schooled her and got her caught up, she graduated from high school.
“I’ll never forget her face as she was hugging my husband,” Tuft said.
Some of the girls who used to stay at the home now have children — who Tuft calls her foster grandchildren — and come back to visit. Anyone is welcome back home at anytime, Tuft said.
“We’re not just a home,” she said. “We’re these people’s family.”