Thousands of memories well up inside of Executive Director Cindy Churchill as she walks among the shaded paths of Steppin’ Stone Farm. Nestled among 86.5 acres of country landscape, the farm has been a home for at-risk teenage girls since the Keiser family started it in 1973. Throughout the years, about 900 girls have completed the Christian-based program successfully.
But, now it is the farm itself that will change. Steppin’ Stone Farm will close by the end of the year.
“My heart is overwhelmed and saddened, but at peace,” Churchill said. “As I walk around the farm and see the beautiful cottages and grounds, I see the love of Christ through the original sacrifice of the Keisers and those of many volunteers and supporters up through today. I see the love of our donors and volunteers who have made this program work much longer than anyone ever thought possible.”
For the past three years, Churchill has noticed a trend that has threatened the success of the program. The program largely depends on the cooperation of parents. Girls must stay in the program for a year and are released only if they have shown improvements. In the few cases of runaways, girls get an extra six months tacked onto their stay if they pull the stunt. But recently, parents have been pulling their children out of the program prematurely.
“It’s getting harder and harder to work with the families,” Churchill said. “Rather than dealing with attitudes, many parents have moved to the medical model. We try and work with matters of the heart and spirituality.”
Churchill herself was a girl at the farm. She had become intwined with the world of partying and drugs at 14. Her parents took her to the farm, and she has remained ever since. Her love for the girls and program is evident.
Her voice becomes shaky with tears when asked about her future plans.
“I never thought I would leave,” Churchill said. “I thought I would be here ‘til I died.”
Churchill gathered the girls on Monday to tell them the news. She first told leadership, girls who have excelled and maintain specific responsibilities. Many eyes teared up. One girl wanted to work at the farm upon graduation.
Leadership decided it wanted to go with Churchill to the school to tell the rest of the girls. Again, tears flowed.
The farm will retain all the girls currently in the program but will not accept new ones. It will remain fully functional until December, allowing the girls participate in many annual events, such as showing their plants and steers at the Florida Strawberry Festival and attending a graduation ceremonies in March and July.
These continuing operations in 2014 will be carried out under a plan of liquidation, which will be adopted and filed with the state. The plan will include the sale of the farm’s assets, and proceeds of the sale will go to Christian homes for abused and neglected children. The college scholarship fund will continue for several years and then also be distributed to Christian homes for abused and neglected children.
“I am so gracious to our supporters,” Churchill said. “Everyone has said they are going to continue to support the farm until the last day. And I am thankful the ministry is going out on top. We have a beautiful facility, financially stable, a great staff. God has provided and has helped hundreds of girls, many who know the Lord.”
Contact Amber Jurgensen at [email protected].