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East Hillsborough farm for troubled girls closing after 40 years

Published:   |   Updated: January 10, 2014 at 07:29 AM

PLANT CITY — For four decades, Steppin’ Stone Farm has turned around the lives of troubled teenage girls with a daily routine that includes chores, school and Scripture.

But the home and working farm that has helped 900 girls through strict but loving Christian guidance is shutting its doors at year’s end.

“I’m not a crier, but when I found out I definitely cried,” said 18-year-old Madison Greany of Riverview, who has been at Steppin’ Stone Farm for a year. “This place has helped me so much and I can’t believe it’s not going to be here for others.”

Cindy Churchill, executive director of Steppin’ Stone Farm, said it will go out on top — the farm never has looked better, it has a dedicated staff and there are dozens of success stories of girls who have turned from paths of self-destruction.

“My heart is overwhelmed and saddened, but I’m at peace,” Churchill said. “I think of all the good we’ve done for so many years. God has been good to us and we’ve accomplished our mission of helping others.”

But she decided to close as she encounters more and more parents “expecting a quick fix” and allowing their daughters to leave on a whim.

“They drop their daughters off and expect us to fix their child. But we can’t do that overnight. It takes time,” she said. “What we were doing before is not working anymore because the parents aren’t supporting us.”

Parents have to agree to send their daughters to Steppin’ Stone for a year — plus an extra six months if they run away. Parents pay $2,100 a month.

Girls who are ripped from a world of parties and boyfriends find themselves on an isolated farm with duties that include cleaning pig pens.

“We can’t help girls who don’t want to be here and have parents who just want us to baby-sit without any support or change on their part,” Churchill said. “It’s a change in society that we can’t fight.”

Steppin’ Stone will care for the girls already enrolled but isn’t accepting new ones.

At the end of 2014, the 86-acre farm south of Plant City, which includes three cottages, a chapel, a dining hall and more, will be put up for sale. The money will be donated to a Christian ministry for abused or neglected children.

Churchill’s roots run deep at the farm in rural Lithia. In 1977, her parents brought her to Steppin’ Stone as a rebellious 14-year-old who liked to use drugs and run away from home. When her year was up she decided to stay on to help others, first as a volunteer.

Eventually she became a staff member.

She became executive director in 1991, after the death of Lois Keiser, who founded Steppin’ Stone with her husband, Ed.

Churchill and her 12 staff members currently are nurturing 19 girls.

Leah Hodges, 16, said she arrived at Steppin’ Stone 10 months ago with no direction for her life and no respect for authority.

“I was angry when I got here. I didn’t want to be here. Now I have goals,” said Hodges, a New Port Richey resident who became a Christian during her time at the farm.

Carolyn McLean, who has been principal of the Steppin’ Stone school for 16 years, said she has seen many girls take on a new outlook.

“I think we are all proud of the work we’ve done here. We’ve been able to change lives,” she said. “The seeds we’ve planted will continue to bear fruit for generations to come.”

Churchill, 50, said she likes to focus on the positive: the 800 girls who became Christians during their time here, and the support from the community, including a recent effort where volunteers built pens for the cattle. Churchill and her husband, Ron, who is a longtime Baptist minister, live on the grounds.

The fact the farm and its ministry are closing still is sinking in.

“I thought I’d live the rest of my life and die right here,” she said. “I don’t know what’s next except that I want to continue to serve the Lord. He’ll open up another door.”

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Twitter: @dnicholsonTrib