For 15-year-old Hunter Bailey, it was seeing a calf being born. For Seth Irven, 16, it was tracking coyotes in a back pasture.
For both, life in the past year has taken unexpected turns as participants in a Bluffton ministry that itself is journeying down a less-traveled road.
House of Hope Northeast Indiana was begun in 2007 as a non-denominational, Christ-centered residential program to heal the lives of troubled teen boys.
But since 2010, with the opportunity to lease a 40-acre farm along East 100 North just outside of town, the program has allowed the youths to live on a farm while helping raise beef cattle. Meat from the animals – predominantly grass-fed and hormone- and antibiotic-free – is then sold on-site through a farm store to pay for the ministry.
Director Alicia Hill says the program is small, now working with four teens, but that is by design of the ministry’s founder, Tom Felger, 43, a member of Life Community Church in Bluffton.
Felger, whose parents were foster parents, began working with teens by starting a church-based mentoring program. Hill says Felger realized that it was difficult to change destructive behaviors without changing the whole environment of a teen.
Often, he found, a child’s chaotic home life was part of the problem, she says.
It’s the (new) environment that helps the healing process. Families that come to us are in crisis, Hill says. The program stresses healing the whole person – spiritually, emotionally, physically and academically.
And, she says, the program focuses on healing the boys’ families as well. Not only do teens attend counseling sessions every week, so do their parents.
Parents also must attend parenting classes and agree to implement the same kind of structure as House of Hope in their own homes.
That means rules, chores, signs of personal respect such as saying please and thank you, earned privileges, consequences for bad behavior and a daily awareness of, and openness to, God.
Boys eat nutritious meals, sleep well and get plenty of exercise while living in a volunteer-remodeled house on the farm with houseparents, Drew and Ashley Bell.
The home is structured to be a functioning home environment, Hill says – something that the boys may never have experienced.
We’re dealing with a lot of broken homes, and young people dealing with a lot of issues because of the breakdown of the family, she explains.
If you’ve numbed (feelings) with drugs, we’re taking all that away. You’re going to have to feel them. But if you have a rough counseling session, then you go out to the farm and work it out.
The teens currently work with 16 black Angus cows and 29 calves. Six calves are expected this spring, according to Brian Clark, a volunteer farm manager who grew up on the property, which has been renamed BrickHouse Farms.
Farm work – feeding, mucking stalls, baling hay, urging recalcitrant 1,500-pound chunks of beef on the hoof that it’s time to move to a different pasture or go back to the barn – is not the only component of the program.
Boys also attend school year-round using individualized instruction in an Indiana-accredited online curriculum in a building behind the original House of Hope on South Main Street in Bluffton. That building is now administrative offices.
Eventually, Hill says, the program would like to include an educational component on how to run a business using the farm store, which has been open since June, as a model.
A goal is to have 14 boys by 2015. The program has five graduates, and all are in school and back with their families, she says.
Two teens, both 17, dropped out, but Hill calls that understandable because the program isn’t easy. She says she doesn’t view such situations as a failure. Did we plant seeds? I hope so, she says.
Bailey and Irven say they are determined to continue and graduate – although neither has farming as a career goal.
I love it out here, says Bailey, who previously lived in Bluffton. He wants to go Ball State University and become an architect.
I was a city boy. I came out here with a positive attitude and I like the farm work. It’s a different experience, he adds. I didn’t grow up around animals and didn’t really work (at a job) before.
Irven, of New Haven, says he was getting F’s in his middle school classes and is now making A’s.
I work a lot more and my work is a lot more organized. I have a better work ethic, I guess, he says. He would also like to go to college or go into the building trades.
Hill says she has seen boys turn into godly men through the program, which, when it works, affects the next generation when the teens eventually become good husbands and fathers who contribute to their communities.
If a boy has been doing drugs, we’re taking him out of that environment and putting him in an environment with not only rules but fresh air, work and caring for animals that are depending on him for their care, she says.
They start to see what life is about. We’re trying to breathe life into these boys any way we can, to see life as God gave it to us.