PLANT CITY Cindy Churchill struggled for composure as she thanked volunteers for helping run her haven for troubled teens for decades.
But the tears started to flow at the farewell banquet in the chapel at Steppin’ Stone Farm.
“I’m very thankful for each one of you. You poured out your life to help the girls. You impacted their lives,” said Churchill, who came to the farm as an unruly teenager and became executive director.
The meal was sponsored by the Florida Baptist Children’s Home, which is taking ownership of the 86-acre farm south of Plant City. Kristen Hitchcock, director of major gifts for the Lakeland-based children’s home, arranged the meal and served as emcee.
“Thank you for all the hard work you put into the lives of these girls,” said Hitchcock, a former Steppin’ Stone volunteer.
The guest speakers included children’s home President Jerry Haag, who praised Steppin’ Stone for its Christian service.
“I know the importance of what took place here. We’re going to honor the legacy of what was done here,” he said.
Haag said his nonprofit is unsure what it will do with Steppin’ Stone, but options including selling the property or using it for a children’s ministry. Either way, Steppin Stone’s assets will be used to help children in a Christian atmosphere, he said.
Haag said his organization helps 70,000 children and their families each year in the United States and other countries through services such as housing for orphans, a refuge for child victims of sex trafficking and more.
Steppin’ Stone was founded in 1973 by the late Ed and Lois Keiser and has helped turn around the lives of 900 troubled girls. 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 and the board decided to close Steppin’ Stone because parents were no longer supporting her tough love approach that included a Spartan lifestyle on a working farm. The board voted to donate the farm, which includes several buildings, to the children’s home.
The farewell banquet ended with the volunteers gathering in a circle around Churchill and her husband Rev. Ron Churchill for a moment of prayer.