By Cindy Larson
Troubled teenagers in the residential treatment program at Gateway Woods in Leo-Cedarville are getting agricultural experience this summer tending to crops and farm animals.
In other words, they’re farmers.
Founded in 1976 by the Apostolic Christian Church, the compound between Leo-Cedarville and Grabill provides school, programs and housing for troubled youth in homes run by house parents. The homes provide a family-like setting.
Eric and Marissa Bahler were house parents at Gateway for five years. Both grew up on farms. Eric studied agribusiness at Purdue. But rather than look for traditional jobs, they opted to go to work for Gateway Woods.
“We knew we had a heart for missions,” he said. Both are members of the Apostolic Christian Church.
Although he doesn’t have a degree in social work, Gateway Woods provided extensive training for the Bahlers. Residents are between the ages of 13 and 18 and usually stay there for six to 12 months. The program focuses on education, counseling and spirituality. There is a fully accredited Christian school onsite.
Gateway Woods has a lot of land, which is conducive to farming or gardening. In addition, there is a barn on-site with chickens, pigs, a steer and horses.
With his agricultural background, Eric decided to start a small garden. Then he got the idea to grow produce to sell to the public. Growing so many different crops was a learning curve for him; most farmers in Indiana farm either corn or beans.
His hobby has turned into a full-time job for himself and Marissa. They no longer live as house parents at Gateway Woods; with five children of their own they felt spread too thin.
But they are keeping busy with their new responsibility. Gateway Farms hires the teen residents to tend to the gardens and run the farmers market set up every Thursday from 4 to 6 p.m. at the Gateway Woods campus at 14505 Klopfenstein Road, Leo-Cedarville.
Gateway Farms is a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program. Participants buy into the program and then are guaranteed a selection of fresh vegetables once every two weeks, plus a baked good prepared by the teen residents and eggs raised there. This year the program has 70 members who get baskets every two weeks, so they get eight baskets during the season. Gateway Woods used to deliver the baskets to customers’ homes, but now most come by on market days and fill their baskets themselves. They do still make a few deliveries.
At the Thursday farmers markets, the public can buy produce. They don’t have to be members of the CSA program.
Gateway Farm rotates what it sells, but typical offerings include tomatoes, kale, lettuce, radishes, turnips, okra, peppers and potatoes. They also sell herbs. The one thing they don’t grow is sweet corn — squirrels in a nearby woods tend to get to it before it can be harvested.
In total, they farm about one acre, including a half-acre that is offsite.
The kids who want to work on the farm have to fill out an application and go through an interview. Their tasks range from planting seeds to weeding, watering, harvesting and interacting with customers at the market.
They get regular performance reviews, and pay is based on the jobs they do and their job performance. They learn skills that will serve them well later in life no matter what job they do. “We try to use it as a teaching tool,” he said.
Much of the work is done with hand tools, rather than agricultural equipment. It can be hard, hot, tedious work. “Oh yes, they definitely complain,” Eric said.
And yet, “There’s something therapeutic about them working with the soil, growing plants,” he said.
At the root of it all, it has to be remembered, these are troubled teenagers who are struggling with depression, eating disorders, drug and alcohol issues, post-traumatic stress disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, oppositional defiant disorder and more.
Working with troubled teens is a challenge. “It’s got its highs and lows,” Eric said. He described it as watching them “peel back layers of hurt they’ve built over their life.”
To learn more about Gateway Woods, including Gateway Farms, go to gatewaywoods.org.