LITHIA — She was 14 when she showed up here, a runaway with long dark brown hair who used and sold cocaine. • It was 1977. Cindy Churchill's parents didn't think she would make it to 15. • With the help of a private investigator, it took them a month to track her down after her latest disappearance. They brought her back to Fort Lauderdale and prayed hard for help. • A friend of a friend in the tiny eastern Hillsborough County community of Keysville told them about a nearby place for troubled young women, run by an older couple who devoted their lives to helping girls like Cindy. It was called Steppin' Stone Farm. • She would have to stay with Ed and Lois Keiser and their staff for a year. • When she arrived at the sprawling farm in the middle of nowhere, Churchill told herself that she would be there a few days. Then she'd figure out how and when to run. • "I didn't think I'd stay here for two weeks, much less 30 years," she says, laughing. "God had other plans for me."
The sun filters through the trees, and a soft afternoon breeze gently hugs those it comes across. A group of girls unload a truck full of feed, passing bags from one to another to be piled in a shed.
Over by the horse stables, another group and a counselor are busy scrubbing mold off the wooden fence. A recent arrival wonders how she got here doing this.
"I never pictured myself working in the sun like this longer than five minutes," she says. "I guess it's not that bad."
They've all changed into shorts and T-shirts for chores after school at the Steppin' Stone Academy, also located on the farm. Everyone leaves here with a high school diploma.
When they arrive, most have the same issues: running away, failing grades — if they go to school at all, domestic violence, rebellion against authority and drug use, among others. Either their parents or a judge sends them to the nonprofit program.
"We call this lawn mower therapy," Churchill says. "But we always do work here that has a purpose. I don't like busy work."
Among school, church, the pigs, the chickens, the horses, the plant nursery, and the 4-H projects, there's always something to do at Steppin' Stone and the 85 acres it entails. The program has an 83 percent success rate, based on whether the young women have a full-time job, attend school and have kept themselves out of trouble a year after leaving.
A structured environment that starts early in the morning with a tidy bed is key, Churchill says. So are counseling and God.
"It's a Christian program, and that's what makes it work," Churchill says. "Regardless of all our religious backgrounds, the staff here feels like we were meant to make a difference for these girls. It's a ministry, not a job."
• • •
That's why she has never left. When her year was up, Churchill became a junior staff member. By the time she was 19, she was assistant director and split her time between the farm and college. In 1991, when Mrs. Keiser died, she became executive director.
Just like her parents, she doesn't think she'd be here if it weren't for the farm.
The Keisers were like family to her, people that made her believe in herself when most others in her life had lost hope.
"I'm here to do the same for these girls," Churchill says, tucking her long gray hair behind her ear. "This has been most of my life. This is my home."
For two soon-to-be graduates, the farm saved their lives, too.
Molly, 16, (whose name is withheld at the request of the school) found herself in Lithia after moving to Tampa from Alaska. The fights with her mom got worse, and she started hanging out with people who didn't really care about her.
The story with Emily is similar. The 17-year-old dropped out of school, started doing drugs and ran away from home in Venice.
But at Steppin' Stone, the pair found they had hidden talents and good hearts.
Hovering over azaleas in the greenhouse that she has grown for 4-H, Molly says that she has learned she's smart and capable.
Looking back on her last year, Emily says that she has been taught how to live like a good person. In the process, she also learned how to raise a steer. One of her favorite things to do is stare at his fuzzy brown face.
"It was pointless, a pointless life," Emily says. "But now I have meaning. I feel at peace."
Chandra Broadwater can be reached at email@example.com, or (813) 661-2454.