Steppin' Stone Farm

Jay and Bonnie were aware of Steppin' Stone Farm from their 1988-1992 time in the Valrico area, but they came to know it much better when their church, with other churches, helped build two 60 x 60 duplexes at the Farm to house support personnel such as the counselors.

The Steppin' Stone Website said this about itself:

    Founded in 1973, Steppin' Stone Farm is a nonprofit Christian residential home for at risk teenage girls. It offers a residential program for girls between the ages of 13 and 17. The residential home provides individual and family counseling services. Steppin' Stone Farm conducts various extracurricular activities, including landscaping and horseback riding, as well as homemaking, chorus, interpretive dance and art projects. It additionally organizes several sports activities, such as basketball, tennis and volleyball. The residential home is registered with the state of Florida and is a member of the Florida Association of Christian Child Caring Agencies. It operates the Steppin Stone Academy, which is an on-site school that conducts educational classes for students in grades 7 through 12.

Steppin' Stone Farm was an in-residence facility for at-risk/troubled girls. The words "at-risk" and "troubled" are pretty broad; these were girls who had serious behavior problems to probably include truancy, poor school grades, disrespect to others, self-immolation, and drugs.

As Bonnie and Jay understood it, there were grandparents named Keiser who had a troubled teenage granddaughter who needed special care and discipline. The Keisers looked and found a number of places that would accept their granddaughter but all had on their admittance papers statements to the effect that the girl understood that further misbehavior on her part would result in termination from that facility.

That was not exactly what the Keisers wanted, and they ended up purchasing 86 acres of country land in Lithia, Florida. This was a very, very rural area about 25 miles east of Tampa. Girls admitted to the Farm were not dismissed for bad behavior, they were disciplined and held accountable. Once Jay and Bonnie asked one of the young ladies, "When did you were you were coming to Steppin'Stone?" The reply: "About a half mile out."

Beginning in October 2004 and continuing for the next 18 months, Jay and Bonnie - and others - traveled every other Saturday morning to Lithia to work on the project. Sometimes there were a number of people there; sometimes there were only 4-6. On some occasions the girls came to help, and Jay and Bonnie got to know them. After a morning of work they cleaned up and had lunch with the girls at their dining hall, where they got to know the girls even better.

When the duplex project was complete, Jay and Bonnie asked themselves if they wanted to keep up their contact with the girls, and they decided that that is what they wanted to do. So they offered to conducted volleyball clinics and did so once or twice a month for the next two or three years, at which point the local grandkids were in recreational soccer and baseball programs that were conducted Saturday mornings. Unfortunately Steppin' Stone had no other weekend times available for the Braden clinics, so that was sad as jay and bonnie had become fond of the girls.

By the time Jay and Bonnie actually visited the Farm for the first time it had an administration building that included a dining room and kitchen, a chapel, three cottages that each held nine girls along with a man and a wife who were the cottage parents, and some other outbuildings that housed other permanent staff members, and multiple storage and maintenance buildings. The Farm was actually a farm, and various vegetables were grown there. There was a greenhouse, cattle pens, horse barn with tack room, and a riding area.

As indicated above, what made Steppin' Stone different was that once a girl was admitted to the Farm, she was bound to stay there at least a year and more likely a year and a half or two years involuntarily. That meant the girls, once admitted, were there until discharged. For the first 30 days at the Farm new girls were expected to be within 6 feet of their big sister, the big sister being a girl who had been there a while and modified her behavior enough that she was considered trustworthy. Girls could run away, and there were a number who tried but almost all were totally unsuccessful because of the farms remote location. The girls were given farm and kitchen chores to do and expected to attend church and go to school.

The clinics were opened with prayer concerns and praises, with a joke or two on the UF Gators, and then followed by volleyball. We did drills for prizes - with the prizes being pieces of candy. We also took drinks for the girls (but not Gatorade.) The sessions ran from 9:00 to 11:00 AM and the first 90 minutes were normally spent on drills and games. For games we played water balloon volleyball and pushball volleyball. For the last 30 minutes we often played "real" volleyball games, though we could have up to 12 on a side. Also we would play a game using three teams with Bonnie serving from one side of the net and Jay serving from the other. Two teams would be on the court, and one team would be "at the ready." When a team missed or otherwise lost what would have been a point, it exited the court and the "at ready" team would hustle on. It had to hustle because Jay or Bonnie would be very soon serving the ball to the team entering the court. One of the side benefits of the volleyball clinics, was that they burned off energy. Jay and bonnie never ever had one instance of misbehavior, but we knew that every girl was there for a reason. Burning up energy on the volleyball court surely topped burning up energy on each other.

Jay and Bonnie enjoyed this very much and were sad when it came to an end. They were even sadder to hear in late 2013 that the farm would be closing - the necessary parental commitment and involvement was just no longer there.

Above property layout from Eshenbaugh Land Company