SPRING HILL — They met in the geriatric psych ward at the state hospital in Chattahoochee. It was 1997 and Stefani Wells, just into her 20s, was doing her internship in music therapy.
Lou LaPorta, in his early 30s and finally finished with his doctorate, was doing his in psychology. They got to know each other while trying to help an elderly Alzheimer's patient who was nicknamed Miss Kitty because she would walk up and down the halls, nonstop, beckoning, "Here, kitty, kitty" to a cat that wasn't there. After six months and a combination of therapies, Miss Kitty would sit for 15 minutes before getting up again, which was a huge success.
Stefani and Lou hit it off from the beginning. "I still get butterflies," Stefani said, now more than a decade later. Both came from middle class, hard-working families who taught their children to be frugal. Neither was high-maintenance and both loved animals.
They married and lived in Boca Raton, but soon grew weary of the traffic and tight spaces. They needed a place where they could breathe and not feel so claustrophobic. They found 30 acres in Spring Hill, just on the Pasco County side of the border with Hernando County.
Having a farm was something Lou had thought about since he was a boy growing up in a small New Jersey town. He remembered his dad researching to buy one, but then deciding against it. Lou was disappointed but kept that idea with him.
Stefani — a soprano opera singer, dancer and musical theater actor —went along with the dream wholeheartedly, even if her friends couldn't picture her as a farm girl, living off a dirt road called Squirrel's Prairie.
"They were shocked," Stefani said.
They moved there in 2005 and began building a home, one big enough so they could have children. They got guinea hens, all sorts of chickens, miniature donkeys and Nigerian dwarf goats. They built fences and shelters and a chicken coop with a solar-powered door.
Stefani planted a garden and had the best tomatoes she'd ever tasted. They got to know their neighbors in a way they never had in the cities they'd lived in, where a nod and a wave were all they got or gave.
Lou began seeing patients nearby and Stefani taught dance classes and performed in regional theater. They were trying to have a baby.
But just as their idyllic dream seemed to be coming together, it very nearly crumbled. The LaPortas were among more than 100 customers swindled by the now-defunct Coral Bay Construction, whose president, Steven Bartlett, was sentenced this spring to 20 years in prison for grand theft.
They lost more than $100,000 and don't think they will ever get any of that money back.
Because of the money loss, Lou began working in Boca Raton again, where he got better pay even factoring in the travel cost. He still works there for several days every other week. Stefani picked up more dance classes and music therapy sessions. She teaches guitar lessons and sells her chickens' eggs.
And, together, Stefani and Lou tried to keep their dream going. It was a really dark time for a while. They still haven't had any luck becoming pregnant and Stefani thinks it's because of all the stress.
But things are getting better now. Their house is nearly done. Stefani and Lou painted it themselves to save money. Inside, the rooms are warm and welcoming: orange, yellow, eggshell, complemented by dark wood. The future nursery is a pale blue.
On Tuesday afternoon, both of them were home. Lou was covered in sweat and wore a yellow shirt under denim overalls, which had holes in the knees and back.
"This is my therapy," he said, of physical labor.
Wherever Stefani walked through the yard, a swarm of animals followed — dozens of chickens, her goats and miniature donkeys. Soon, she'll start milking the goats to make cheese and sell the milk. The donkeys, who are like sweet, big dogs, keep predators away. Even though it's been tough, Stefani said it's all been worth it. She's the happiest she's ever been. When asked why, she looked around at the sloping green and happy animals and the quiet…
"Just look at it," she said.
Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this story. Erin Sullivan can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4609.