PLANT CITY – Steppin’ Stone Farm awarded a high school diploma to its final student as the home for troubled teenage girls prepares to close its doors forever.
Callie Marie Sorensen said she was grateful for her time at Steppin’ Stone, which she said helped turn her life around. Her dad, John, said “this place saved her.”
The 17-year-old wore a blue cap and gown for the graduation ceremony in the farm’s chapel. The audience included family members, Steppin’ Stone Farm supporters and staff members.
The final graduation marked another, final milestone at Steppin’ Stone, which expects to close completely in late summer.
The featured commencement speaker was the Rev. Ron Churchill, husband of farm Executive Director Cindy Churchill.
He told Sorensen – and the audience in general – to try to make a positive impact on the world, stay physically and emotionally fit, and to pray each day.
“We’re proud of what she’s done. She has a positive attitude and is a friend to all,” he said.
She was known for her beauty and her sense of humor, Churchill added.
Sorensen’s mother, Anita, said her daughter wasn’t in serious trouble but was headed down the wrong path in life by making poor decisions and hanging out with a bad crowd.
“I’m so excited for her. I can see such a change in her,” she said.
Sorensen said her immediate plans are to enroll in Tallahassee Community College, then transfer to Florida State University. She plans on studying nursing and wants to become a registered nurse.
“I feel very blessed to have been here. The people here have helped me so much. It’s just sad that others won’t be able to come here, too,” she said.
Sorensen quipped that being in a class of one had a distinct advantage: “I can have a high school reunion every day.”
An estimated 900 girls have been turned from substance abuse or other destructive behaviors since Steppin’ Stone opened in 1973. Nearly all earned their high school diplomas, either while at Steppin’ Stone or after their minimum year stay there, said Cindy Churchill, who came to the farm in 1977 as a troubled teen. She decided she wanted to help others, became a staff member and in 1991 was named executive director.
“Not many of them would have graduated high school if they didn’t come to the farm,” she said.
The faith-based Steppin’ Stone accepted girls 13 to 17 whose families agreed to send them to the rural refuge, where they were cut off from friends back home and had to do their share of such farm chores as shoveling manure. Churchill and the board members decided to shut the farm down because fewer and fewer parents were backing Churchill’s tough love approach for saving troubled teens.
The 86-acre farm will be donated to the Florida Baptist Children’s Home, which hasn’t announced what it will do with the property off Keysville Road.
Five girls remain at Steppin’ Stone, and their year there will be up this summer.
Steppin’ Stone was founded by the late Ed and Lois Kaiser, who started taking foster children into their Tampa home before having a dream of buying property and opening the farm for troubled girls.
“They were told over and over ‘it will never work, you can’t do it. You have no money and you have no backing,’” their son Ed said.
Ed Kaiser fought back tears at the farm’s final graduation ceremony. He agreed with the decision to close, and credited Cindy Churchill with her leadership for the last 23 years.
“I have no doubt that the Lord above sent Cindy here. I want to thank Cindy personally for what she’s done in keeping my parents’ dream alive for so many years.”