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Hartselle Enquirer
Photos by Tristan Holmes DJ Brown, left, and Jasmine Brown, right are pushed on the swings by their mother Melanie Brown at Circle Ranch in Danville. The Circle Ranch is a sanctuary created for foster families to be able to take in as many foster children as they can for little to no living expenses.

Circle Ranch fosters community

By Emma Daniel

For the Enquirer

At the Circle Ranch in western Morgan County, it’s obvious there are lots of children — discarded toys can be found if one looks hard enough, bikes and kiddie pools adorn yards, and the playground swings squeak slightly in the wind.

The Circle Ranch is a sanctuary created for foster families to be able to take in as many foster children as they can for little to no living expenses.

Photos by Tristan Holmes
Bentley Brown speeds down the slide at Circle Ranch in Danville.

Out of the seven houses on the 40-acre property, three are filled with families who have biological, adopted and foster children, with one more family to move in soon, said Luke Hinkle, ministry coordinator. Hinkle balances community coordination for the ranch and a full-time job in tech support.

The ranch used to be the Alabama Sheriff’s Association Boys Ranch, a home for abandoned or neglected boys for more than 30 years. It closed in 2010 and sat unused for seven years before work on a community for foster families began.

“Sometime about 2015 there was a family that lived (locally) who had the idea,” Hinkle said. “What if we take these homes, fix them up, and we allow foster families to come out here, live at the homes for little to no cost?

“Parents can come in to foster more kids than they could at any other house.”

Parents are asked to pay $500 a month in rent, which basically covers utilities.

“They could easily pay three or four times that per month for a similar home,” he said.

Each occupied house has been completely renovated, and work on two more of the old houses is in progress.

“I remember coming in and scraping the popcorn ceiling off that building,” Hinkle said, gesturing to the house in the back.

Hinkle said his involvement with the property goes back generations.

“My mom and her parents, my grandparents, were actually house parents way back in the ’80s, back when it was the boys ranch,” he said. “Once there was this transition and the Circle Ranch started to get going, my family was still involved and wanted to be a part of it.”

Now, Hinkle represents the ranch in the community and organizes events and service projects.

“The fact that it’s come full circle for me to get involved in this property is pretty cool.”

The seven houses arranged around a circular driveway are between 4,000 and 6,000 square feet each and provide ample room for children.

An A-frame chapel sits in the center of the property, blue and green stained glass windows at the tops of each side.

A playground featuring a swing set and jungle gym were donated to the property, along with an old caboose.

“Every single thing that we do here is as a result of people supporting the community, whether that’s churches or organizations, whether that’s

individuals that are pledging support to us,” Hinkle said. “Everything we do is based on what people give and how they support us.”

In 2021, 44 foster children stayed at the ranch, Hinkle said. This is an increase from previous years — 30 children stayed there in 2020, and 23 children stayed there in 2019.

About 120 Morgan County children are currently in foster care, with just under 30 homes fostering, according to Families and Children Experiencing Separation (FACES).

“That number fluctuates every day,” said Lainie Alexander, Morgan County Department of Human Resources director.

She said she has seen the effects of the Circle Ranch’s work.

“The Circle Ranch is a huge benefit,” she said. “We adore those families and the work they do for them.

“I appreciate what they’re doing for those children and those families.”

Hinkle said the ranch gives the children in foster care a loving and safe community with parents and other children who understand the struggles of being in the system.

Melanie Brown lives at the Circle Ranch with her husband Anthony and 12 children.

“When you visit the ranch, there’s something magical,” she said. “The land, the atmosphere, the nature, it’s all very healing.”

The dozen kids staying at the house include one of her biological children (two others are grown and out of the house), six adopted children ranging from 3 to 9 years old, and five foster children. They’ve lived at the ranch since February of 2018.

“The saying ‘it takes a village’ is so amazingly true,” she said. “It takes a very orchestrated calendar and plan.”

While juggling work, meals, extracurricular activities, “28 dirty socks, 14 outfits, 14 towels,” she said she appreciates the community.

“Every time we get to the point where we feel like we’re nuts, somebody comes along and lifts you up.”

She has fostered 37 children at the ranch in the four years she has lived there.

“That’s 37 children who have been affected by us being at the ranch,” she said.

Some of them have only stayed an afternoon, and their longest placement was for 18½ months.

She said foster children can be bullied, but the Circle Ranch provides a safe place free from judgment for the children who come to stay.

“It’s great to know they can go outside and play with their neighbors unjudged,” she said. “They know they won’t get made fun of.

“They come from different worlds, but they’re walking the same walk.”

Anyone interested in donating can message the Circle Ranch Facebook page.

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