APSO volunteers create memorial garden for Tallapoosa County Girls Ranch

It was a true labor of love as volunteers of the Eastern and Southern chapters of the Alabama Power Service Organization (APSO) built a memorial garden at the Tallapoosa County Girls Ranch on June 10.

APSO members worked in one accord at the Camp Hill property to create a peaceful garden to provide comfort and solace to ranch staff and the girls. Their mission seemed all the more urgent with the looming anniversary of the massive 18-car pileup on Interstate 65, responsible for the deaths of eight children on June 19, 2021.

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About 40 volunteers began work around 9 a.m. They ran tractors to move dirt for landscaping, installed garden tarps to prevent weeds, dug holes and planted bushes and flowers to create a fragrant oasis, in addition to making gravel paths lit by solar lamps. As temperatures moved upward at noon, employees stopped for a brief lunch break. The work continued as APSO members raked leaves and cleaned the property entrance.

The beautified entrance to the Girls Ranch is spotlighted by newly planted cone flowers, blue hydrangea, dianthus, cherry willows, tea olive, gardenia and other bushes selected by Ranch Life Director Candice Gulley. The new butterfly bushes will soon attract colorful visitors to the garden.

Last year, Gulley and the Girls Ranch faced unimaginable loss: In addition to losing four girls who lived at the ranch, the wreck claimed the lives of Gulley’s 4-year-old son, Ben, her 16-year-old daughter, Isabella, and two nephews. Watching the transformation of the ranch entry into a welcoming garden, Gulley said it was heartwarming to see the “amazing showing” of volunteers. Now, when Gulley peers out her office windows, she’s greeted by an expanse of colorful blooms.

“This was really encouraging for us,” said Gulley, who, with her husband, Thomas, began serving the ranch as a house parent 12 years ago. “We are a small operation, so the labor that was put in ranchwide was not just the memorial. We had volunteers helping with the maintenance of the property landscaping, helping clean and get house preparations in order. They are filling a vital need that we have.

“Volunteerism is vital to how our organization is able to continue growing and thriving, and being able to meet the needs of our kids,” Gulley added. The ranch has six on staff. Licensed to serve girls ages 6 to 18, the ranch houses 11 girls at this time.

Eastern APSO President Amanda Young was happy to see so many volunteers working at the event.

“We’re excited to be able to help the ranch because they’ve been a little shorthanded,” said Young, Power Delivery clerk at Alabama Power’s Pell City Office. “We’re doing all kinds of things, anything from digging up dirt in the garden to running tractors to weed eating, cleaning out refrigerators and general housekeeping.”

Southern APSO’s Jessica Mitchell and Tabatha White joined four other volunteers in deep cleaning the girls’ residence: They stripped bed linens, swept, cleaned the white bedroom furniture and disinfected bathrooms.

“We’re here to do anything they need us to do,” Young said.

Community eager to help

During the past year and a half, Community Relations Managers Steve Marlowe, Rod Cater and Spencer Williams teamed up to help the Girls Ranch obtain an Energy Efficiency grant through the Alabama Business Charitable Trust Fund. The $10,000 grant enabled the ranch to install a new HVAC system and lighting at its onsite chapel, which is more than 50 years old.

After the accident, Marlowe and Williams thought about the possibility of adding the memorial garden. They helped the ranch apply for a grant through the Alabama Power Foundation’s Good Roots program.

“We thought this would be a tremendous project because it would be an appropriate use of those funds, and it would be something even more meaningful than we’ve done in the past,” Marlowe said.

When Marlowe broached the idea, Michael Smith, CEO of Alabama Sheriffs Youth Ranches, noted that one of the girls had already drawn up plans for a memorial garden.

“All the stars lined up for us to do this – it was meant to be,” said Marlowe, an Eastern Division APSO member. “Everybody in the area who knows them and does things for them wanted to do something tangible to let them know how we feel about them. I can’t thank them (the ranch) enough for allowing us to participate with them. These two ideas came together. I’m so excited and grateful to be a part of it.”

Healing in a ‘quiet place of solitude’

Gulley is amazed and grateful for the work done by APSO volunteers. (Donna Cope / Alabama NewsCenter)

The Good Roots grant allowed Gulley to select the plants and trees, which she ordered online. While she looks forward to spending quiet time in the memorial garden, to reflect and remember, Gulley said the area will also provide a safe place for the girls.

“The garden will be a quiet place of solitude to relax,” said Gulley, who is still healing emotionally from the events one year ago. “If you go out right now, you’ll hear the birds chirping, you’ll hear the cows mooing in the distance. It will be a place of peace for me to capture my thoughts, to reflect.

“Those are moments that I need to prioritize throughout the day to be able to make it through,” she said. “Sometimes it helps to just be in a place of nature to reflect.”