PLANT CITY — A farm that has turned teenage girls away from self-destructive paths for four decades soon will have a new owner — and, most likely, a new Christian mission.
The board of Steppin' Stone Farm has voted to donate the 86 acres south of Plant City to the Florida Baptist Children's Home. Ownership will transfer after Steppin' Stone closes its doors in the fall.
“We offered it to them because they have had a tremendous ministry for over 100 years. We wanted to help another ministry that helped children,” Steppin' Stone Executive Director Cindy Churchill said.
Steppin' Stone is donating the land and its buildings on the condition that Florida Baptist Children's Home give $100,000 to the Florida Methodist Children's Home, she said.
Jerry Haag, president of the Florida Baptist Children's Home and its Orphan's Heart ministry, said he is not sure what his organization will do with the property. Options include establishing a children's ministry there or perhaps selling the land, he said.
He said he is overwhelmed by the generosity of such a respected Christian institution.
“I'm familiar with the work Steppin' Stone has done over the years and I'm humbled that they would have chosen us for this gift,” Haag said.
Haag said his organization helps 70,000 children and their families each year in the United States and other countries.
Churchill said many ministries expressed interest in the property after she announced in January that she was closing the doors.
Churchill said many religious denominations have supported Steppin' Stone over the years, but most of the donations have come from Baptist and Methodist churches, so it was logical to help them.
After much prayer, she said, Steppin' Stone's leaders chose to donate the facility to Florida Baptist Children's Home, which offers services such as housing for orphans, a refuge for child victims of sex trafficking and more. The board also wanted to help the Methodist home, which has a similar ministry.
Churchill was familiar with the home for a number of reasons, including its affiliation with the Southern Baptist Convention. Her husband, the Rev. Ron Churchill, is retired senior pastor of Plant City's First Baptist Church and current pastor of Trinity Baptist in Sun City Center.
Cindy Churchill first came to Steppin' Stone in 1977 as a troubled 14-year-old. She completed the program, and then joined the staff. She became executive director in 1991.
Churchill decided to close the program for troubled 13- to 17-year-olds because she said she no longer gets parental support for a tough-love approach that includes hard work on a working farm. Through the years, the farm has used a spartan lifestyle and biblical principles to help 900 girls kick drug habits or other self-destructive behaviors.
She is down to eight girls, as she works to honor the year-contracts she signed with parents. Typically she would have 24 girls at a given time.
She is at peace not only with closing, but with the fate of the property.
Methodist Children's Home spokeswoman Merrilu Bennett said her organization just found out about the donation on Wednesday and wasn't sure where the money would go. But she noted that the home near Orlando is opening a new campus near Tallahassee and the money couldn't come at a better time.
“We'll be able to care for many more children thanks to this donation,” she said.