Where is solace in the storm?
For Maureen Willard, she found it in music. A 1989 graduate of Westminster Christian School, Maureen was a thriving teenager until she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer her junior year in high school. Maureen already possessed a strong faith, but she faced this dreaded disease with dignity and a rare confidence in the power of the Almighty. And although she fought boldly, Maureen died on February 14, 1991 at the age of twenty.
During her illness, Maureen was granted a wish through an organization based out of Birmingham called Magic Moments. While she was receiving treatments, Maureen would lie in bed and listen to the music of Amy Grant, and it was through this music that she found solace. As a result, her wish was to meet Amy. Maureen wanted to tell the famed Christian artist how deeply her music had impacted her, and also hoped that Amy might perform a benefit concert for Big Oak Ranch, another organization to which Maureen had a deep attachment. During treatment, Maureen also volunteered at the Ranch, finding greater purpose and meaning in the midst of her storm. She felt that she could still give back, even though her body was weak.
Magic Moments soon arranged for Maureen to travel to Franklin, Tennessee to meet Amy Grant. The previous night, Amy had accepted the Dove Award for her recording of “Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus,” and Amy was excited as Maureen and Billy Eyster—a supporter and Board member of Big Oak Ranch—came knocking on her door the very next morning.
As part of Maureen’s wish, Amy and Maureen spent the day together, forging a bond through Christian fellowship and music. In fact, Amy was so impressed by Maureen that she donated a horse named Yogi to the Ranch in honor of Maureen. Yogi eventually became the mascot for Westbrook Christian, the school that Westminster had become after Big Oak acquired it in 1990. But before the concert was realized, Maureen died.
Twenty-five years later, Maureen’s wish has been granted. Amy Grant will perform a benefit concert for Big Oak Ranch on Tuesday, September 20 on the campus of Samford University.
The concert was made possible with the help of a women’s auxiliary group that has been serving the Ranch for a decade.
The Auxiliary of the Big Oak Ranch was founded in August of 2006 by a group of ten women led by Phyllis DePiano and Joann Bashinsky. The concert will celebrate the auxiliary’s ten-year anniversary.
Gail Garner, current Vice-President of the Auxiliary, was one of the charter board members. “We had never done anything like this but we knew this was a wonderful, wonderful cause,” Gail says, speaking of the Auxiliary. “We wanted to do extra for the children and house parents. All of us ladies prayed and prayed about this.”
Since that time, the Auxiliary has helped the Ranch in a variety of ways. They replaced bedroom furniture in the Girls’ Ranch and furnished transition apartments. Each year they purchase laptops for graduating seniors, provide Easter baskets and candy, give gift certificates to house parents, offer a card ministry to encourage Ranch residents, and cater weekend retreats for house mothers. The Auxiliary has also opened a girls’ Boutique and a boys’ Outfitters at the Ranch.
The group of ten women who started the Auxiliary has grown to more than 175 women who sacrifice their time so that the Ranch can flourish and children can see God through the selfless acts of Christian people.
Susan Taylor, Fundraising Chair for the Auxiliary, shares a story about the girls’ Boutique that made as much of an impact on her as the Boutique made on the child. One night, a house mother was tucking one of the girls at the Ranch into bed and asked her if she wanted anything. “If I could just have a new dress…” the girl wished. After visiting the boutique, the girl put on a new dress. When she came out to present herself, she exclaimed, “It still has the tags on it!”
“To hear stories like this and then to see the joy emanating from girls’ eyes when they walk into the Boutique for the first time, is such a blessing,” Susan said.
Susan was also personally touched by Maureen’s story, and this led her and others down the path to assembling the concert that had been on-hold for twenty-five years. For Susan, the Amy Grant concert meant coming full circle. “I see that in Maureen’s story, but I also see it with the Big Oak Ranch,” she says. “I see it in so many lives— a young woman who works at the Ranch now who grew up at the Ranch. What John Croyle started in 1974, now the torch has been passed to Brodie.”
Brodie Croyle, Executive Director of the Big Oak Ranch, recently said of the Auxiliary: “There are so many ways The Auxiliary of Big Oak Ranch supports us. They provide prayer support and encouragement to the children and staff at the Ranch as well as providing some extras for the children. They send cards to each child and houseparent at the Ranch for birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays. Sometimes this will be the first piece of mail one of our children has ever received. They also started the Boutique at the Girls’ Ranch and the Outfitters at the Boys’ Ranch where the kids can shop for new merchandise with points they earn for character, grades and behavior. They provide laptops each spring for our graduating high school seniors; they provide Easter baskets; and sometimes when special needs arise, they purchase big ticket items like new bedroom furniture for the girls at the Girls’ Ranch, or drums for Westbrook Christian School’s drum line. They are also a source of encouragement for our housemoms. Each December, they have a Christmas brunch honoring all of our housemoms and each February they have a weekend spiritual retreat for all the housemoms where they get away to relax, refresh, restore, and be pampered.”
It is against this backdrop that Amy Grant will take the stage on the night of September 20, at the Wright Center on the campus of Samford University. “Our kids are very excited about the concert and to realize Amy Grant and The Auxiliary of Big Oak Ranch are doing this to support them is pretty special,” Croyle added.
But the ladies of the Auxiliary believe that this is more than just a concert. This is a tribute to God’s faithfulness. This is a testament to the faith of a believer, even though Maureen’s wish was not granted until many years later. “Maureen had such a deep faith,” Susan says. “And she was bold about sharing that faith. Even though she’s been gone for twenty-five years, God is still honoring Maureen’s dream.”
Mark Twain once wrote that “Truth is stranger than fiction.” When someone hears a beautiful story of God’s redeeming love, such as that of Maureen Willard, they realize that truth is also better than it. 78
Tickets to the concert are available at tickets.samford.edu or by calling 205-726-2853.
For information about Big Oak Ranch, please visit www.bigoak.org.
For information about The Auxiliary of Big Oak Ranch, please visit www.bigoakauxiliary.com
Images courtesy of The Auxiliary of Big Oak Ranch.