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Farm steps in to help girls

From the outside, the farm looks like any other with its cows, pigs, chickens and horses.

But for the teenage girls who live there, Steppin' Stone Farm represents hope for the future.

Here, girls who have run away from home, abused drugs or alcohol, or had trouble with the law, find safety, compassion, role models and clean living.

"The Steppin' Stone facility is a leader when compared to other state facilities," said James P. Calhoun, a member of the organization's board of directors.

Calhoun should know: He's also a retired juvenile judge. While on the bench he sent teenage girls to Steppin' Stone. He said the farm has an extraordinary record of preventing girls from becoming repeat offenders.

Steppin' Stone was established nearly 20 years ago by "Gramma" Lois Keiser and her husband, Ed. Mrs. Keiser, who died last year at age 76, had long dreamed of having a home where troubled girls could feel safe while sorting out their problems. So, in 1973, the couple built Steppin' Stone in Lithia's lush woodlands.

Cindy Sheldon, 29, now the farm's director, remembers when she first came to Steppin' Stone as a troubled youth at age 14.

"None of the land was cleared, and we ended up living in donated trailers for 12 years," she said.

Now, the 85-acre farm has three cottages _ named Faith, Hope and Love _ a school building, and a chapel.

The girls' smiling faces make it hard to imagine that many were once drug and alcohol users.

Since the farm opened, more than 300 girls have been placed at Steppin' Stone through recommendations from parents or the juvenile courts as part of a sentence.

Official referrals were more common when Steppin' Stone was licensed through the Florida Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services, said Tom Jones, the department's Tampa area spokesman.

Nowadays, although HRS still inspects Steppin' Stone, parents and religious organizations such as the Florida Association of Christian Child Caring Agencies perform most of the placements.

The girls, age 13 to 17, are required to stay at least a year to 18 months. Parents must pay a fee of $310 a month.

Steppin' Stone seeks to use consistent love, counseling and fellowship to prepare the girls to return to their homes.

"The girls represent different backgrounds, whether it's poor, wealthy, black or white," Sheldon said. "Ninety percent of the girls come from homes where parents are afraid to discipline their kids."

At Steppin' Stone, discipline is handed out in large doses.

Each day is planned with specific jobs for the girls. Time is spent doing farm chores, studying, practicing foreign languages or just playing a game of tennis on one of the farm's two courts.

"The girls really love raising the animals. It's almost therapeutic for them," Sheldon said. "Most of them haven't had a lot of responsibility, so it makes them feel good."

The farm's small staff of four full-time and two part-time workers find they earn the girls' respect by setting examples. Everyone abides by the same rules, such as no smoking or drinking. Even when staff workers have personal time off, they usually don't stay out late.

"There's a lot of things we have to make sacrifices for, but they see that and know we do it because we love them," Sheldon said.

Boyce Sweat, the business manager for the past two years, is often building cow fences or coordinating the volunteers. In the short time he has been there, he's also developed a special relationship with the girls.

"I'm also an ordained Baptist minister, and sometimes that comes in handy around here," he said. "I baptize the girls, and they choose to have it done in the Alafia River."

The belief in Christianity and a Christian atmosphere are of utmost importance at Steppin' Stone. The farm's religious preference is non-denominational Christian.

Sheldon said religion is not forced upon the girls, but the girls are asked to listen and be respectful of the others around them.

"We don't push Christianity, but it's in the atmosphere," she said. "The Keisers believed that being a Christian wasn't something you did on Sunday, but every day of the week."

Even though state officials have sent some girls to Steppin' Stone, juvenile judges said they have no problem with the farm's religious orientation.

Judge Calhoun said he researched the issue of separation of church and state, and concluded there was nothing wrong with sending girls to the farm.

For one thing, it works, he said. And often there is no alternative.

"When the girls are sent there, it's because there is no other place to put them," said Calhoun, who is now retired.

Judge Vincent E. Giglio, administrative judge of the juvenile division, agreed that the farm's religious orientation is not a problem. "I wish there were more programs available," he said.

Steppin' Stone receives no state or federal funding, only donations from the community.

"The community support encourages us as a staff," Sheldon said. "It makes us feel we're not forgotten and that people love us."

Staff also are comforted in knowing they are fulfilling the late Mrs. Keiser's dream.

"Gramma Keiser was always proud to see her girls move on to bigger and better things in life," Sheldon said. "Even though she is gone, her legacy will be shared with all the young girls who spend time at the farm. We really miss her, but her spirit lives in all of us."

To volunteer

To learn how you can volunteer or be a house parent at Steppin' Stone Farm, please call 685-5779.