Behind every thriving service-oriented organization is one person that can be credited as being the integral key to its foundational success and the backbone of its operations.
Perhaps there is no organization committed to a more noble cause in the state of Alabama than Big Oak Ranch. Founded in 1974, the ranch has welcomed more than 2,000 children in need with open arms, providing them with direction and comfort, guided by the unwavering love of the Holy Spirit.
Currently, the ranch has 24 homes, 13 of which are occupied by boys and 11 for girls, caring for 178 kids in total. The ranch presently has 12 kids in college and 630 who attend Westbrook Christian School, which is operated by the ranch.
The Croyle family’s service to Alabama children cannot be understated, nor can the family’s impact truly be expressed in words. To the Croyles, each child Big Oak Ranch welcomes immediately becomes family. Through Christ-centered love and the teaching of basic educational skills the children need to overcome past adversity, the Croyles stand ready and willing to meet their needs.
The crucial piece to the success story behind Big Oak Ranch is a strong-willed, hard-working woman with a heart of gold and a humble, servant-driven mentality. This woman is Teresa Croyle, better known by most as Mrs. Tee.
For Mrs. Tee, the calling to serve was bestowed upon her from a greater power. Ever since receiving this divine calling, she has gone above and beyond in ensuring her life’s mission was carried out to the fullest.
“I always felt as if God was calling me into some type of ministry,” says Mrs. Tee. “I just felt like I had some type of calling for my life.”
When the Croyles decided to launch Big Oak, she recalled her husband, John, forgoing a career to run the day-to-day operations of the ranch.
“At that point in time, technically he didn’t have a job,” she says. “He didn’t get paid for many years. I taught at a public school, so that was our source of income not just only for our family but for the beginning at the ranch.”
She answered the call to support her family during the early stages of the ranch. Her financial support as an educator proved extremely beneficial to the ranch’s success. However, she humbly credits not herself for ensuring Big Oak’s financial needs were met.
“No matter what we needed when the bills were due, God always provided for us,” says Mrs. Tee. “Sometimes we would even find money in the mailbox that would help to pay bills, that we had no idea where the money was coming from. But God’s always provided. There were many years where we’d have several houses and one vehicle that could take everybody to church.”
She gives praise to the many individuals who contribute daily to ranch operations.
Croyle adds, “In the very beginning, it was hard but as people learned about the ranch, God continued to provide supporters because without them Big Oak Ranch would not exist. We are blessed with people that are called to be our house parents that come there and give themselves 24/7 every single day. People that are our Big Oak supporters are the ones that allow us to do it.”
Mrs. Tee served 10 years in public education before opting to be a stay-at-home mother, later returning to her passion for teaching as she became the math teacher at Westbrook Christian School, which Big Oak Ranch has operated since 1990. She has taught there ever since.
The K-12 school serves Big Oak Ranch residents as well as children within the community.
Being the humble servant she is, Mrs. Tee takes no credit for Big Oak’s success. Rather, she heaps praise on the blessings the Lord has bestowed upon the ranch as well as the many volunteers and ranch parents who have dedicated years to supporting its mission.
“They do it with joy in their hearts because they love the kids unconditionally,” she says. “They show them what that unconditional love is and how to be Godly men and women so they can give their children a different lifestyle they grew up in.”
Mrs. Tee tells Yellowhammer News of the most rewarding aspect of seeing the children develop into thriving individuals, leaving behind them the pain and suffering of the lives they formerly knew.
“It’s awesome,” she declares. “It’s amazing to see some you thought would never make it and you see them as they’ve grown up, that even though there were some bucking the system when they left, the principles they learned when they were here, as they’ve grown and matured they’ve taken that into their own lives and to their own children.”
She adds, “All we can do is show them love, lead them to Jesus, present them with the gospel and a way they can have a new life and foundation, and pray those words stick.”
The driving force behind what motivates Mrs. Tee to do what she loves every day is having the opportunity to present children with a life-altering decision which she believes trumps all.
“We’ve had 30 commitments of faith in Jesus this past year, which is amazing with a lot of the kids we have,” says Mrs. Tee. “So, that is where our focus is because that is the whole basis of the ranch.”
At age 70, Mrs. Tee can see her retirement drawing nigh. However, she has yet to walk away from her passion for instilling children with the love and knowledge that they will carry throughout their lives.
“I also find it very hard because I love teaching school, I love my kids,” she says. “I love the fact that I can interact with them on a one-on-one basis. Not only to teach math, but at our school we’re also able to teach them there are more important things in life, and that they need to focus on the eternity because that’s where it matters and that’s the most important decision they make.”
Mrs. Tee describes herself as someone who desires to be behind the scenes rather than in the forefront. As such, she continuously heaps praise on others, never expounding on the extraordinary feats she’s helped the ranch achieve. When asked about her contributions to Big Oak, she always ties her work back to the ranch family as a whole.
However, there is one person who is not shy about lavishing praise upon Mrs. Tee. This person is her biggest fan, her son and executive director of Big Oak Ranch, Brodie Croyle.
“My mother is the most humble, wise, servant-hearted human being that I’ve ever met,” Croyle tells Yellowhammer News. “Truly the heart and soul of Big Oak.”
From being CFO, the ranch’s financial provider, to bush hogger, Croyle says his mother has done it all.
“The best way to measure it is the impact she’s had on kid’s lives. You always see dad on commercials and hear his voice, he’s very recognizable,” going on to state that his mother always served as the ranch’s bedrock by way of her tireless work ethic and endless contributions.
Croyle touched on the countless number of testimonials former residents of Big Oak Ranch have given articulating the many blessings she has given to them.
“To hear past residents that know her as Mrs. Tee to her past students that know her as Mrs. Croyle, she has a way of engaging people that is so unique,” he says. “This is one thing I appreciate about her in my life, she’s never let me settle for one ounce less than what she thought I was capable of. I think anybody that has ever had her as an influencer in her life can say that exact same thing.”
He adds, “When you hear past residents, they talk about their house parents, they talk about dad, but they make sure to talk about Mrs. Tee and the impact she had in their lives.”
Croyle went on to state that not only are her former students appreciative of her as a teacher, but for her care and love of the students she has taught.
He says that students would say, “I learned that sometimes discipline is love. The fact that she didn’t let me sleep, she didn’t let me fail.”
“That’s my mother,” says Croyle. “She is bold when she needs to be bold. She would much rather be behind the scenes, but she’s one of the most influential people in so many lives but I can tell you for sure in mine. My mother’s my hero.”
A hero she most certainly is. This is perhaps the one word that best describes the life’s work of Teresa Croyle. She is a hero for the many children to whom she has given her steadfast dedication and unrelenting love.
With a life of resolute devotion to a higher calling and a pure servant’s heart, Mrs. Tee truly exemplifies what it means to live a life of impact. What she has given to the children of Big Oak Ranch not only spans a lifetime but an eternity.
Yellowhammer News is proud to name Teresa “Tee” Croyle the 2021 recipient of the lifetime service award.
Dylan Smith is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @DylanSmithAL