Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Steppin' Stone helps girls straighten out their lives

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, or (813) 661-2454.

fast facts

Steppin' Stone Farm

For more information about Steppin' Stone Farm, go to or call (813) 650-8700.

Some program facts

•Steppin' Stone has room for up to 27 girls, ages 13 to 17.

•Girls stay a minimum of one year, with four scheduled visits with their families.

•All parents must be in agreement, come for a tour, and sign custody papers prior to admission.

•Monthly tuition is $1,800.

•An AIDS test and physical exam must be completed before admission.

•Six months is added to a stay for running away.

Steppin' Stone helps girls straighten out their lives 02/19/09 [Last modified: Thursday, February 19, 2009 3:30am]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Review: Mumford and Sons shower Amalie Arena with love in euphoric Tampa debut


    There are releases, and then there are releases. And minutes into their concert Wednesday at Amalie Arena, Mumford and Sons gave Tampa the latter.

    Mumford and Sons performed at Tampa's Amalie Arena on Sept. 20, 2017.
  2. FEMA to open disaster recovery center in Riverview


    The Federal Emergency Management Agency said it will open a disaster recovery center Thursday in Riverview for Hillsborough County residents impacted by Hurricane Irma.

  3. Life sentence for man convicted in killing of brother of Bucs' Kwon Alexander


    An Alabama man who shot and killed the 17-year-old brother of Bucs linebacker Kwon Alexander in 2015 was sentenced to life in prison Wednesday, the Anniston (Ala.) Star reported.

  4. Remember him? Numbers prove Ben Zobrist is one of greatest Rays of all time

    The Heater

    ST. PETERSBURG — The first foray back to the Trop by the best manager the Rays have had obscured the second return visit by arguably the second-best player in franchise history.


    Chicago Cubs second baseman Ben Zobrist (18) grounds into a double play to end the top of the third inning of the game between the Chicago Cubs and the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla. on Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017.
  5. GOP's new repeal bill would likely leave millions more uninsured, analyses suggest


    WASHINGTON — The latest Republican bid to roll back the Affordable Care Act would likely leave millions of currently insured Americans without health coverage in the coming decades, and strip benefits and protections from millions more, a growing number of independent studies suggest.

    Vice President Mike Pence listens as President Donald Trump talks to reporters about the Graham-Cassidy health care bill during a meeting with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi at the Palace Hotel during the United Nations General Assembly, Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017, in New York. [Evan Vucci | Associated Press]