The boys bound off the bus, anxious to have their after-school snack. A couple race toward the kitchen only to be called back. After being reminded about being on their best behavior and using good manners, they politely introduce themselves and stand awkwardly for a moment, waiting to be released.
“No cussing today on the bus. That’s really good. Go on in,” Debbie McCullough tells the boys, the words barely out of her mouth before they are running toward the farmhouse. Inside the boys gather around the kitchen counter, dipping apples into pumpkin marshmallow fluff while they share one good thing and one bad thing about their lives recently, which they refer to as “apples” and “cow patties.”
One boy’s “apple” is that his family got some “good groceries” and not just junk food. Another says he had a great lunch at school but is upset that he couldn’t eat with his friends because he was at counseling. The next boy’s response draws concerned looks from McCullough and her friend Cathy Tofstad – his “cow patty” is that his family is moving.
“Why, honey?” Tofstad asks quietly.
“Don’t have the money to pay the rent,” the 11-year-old says matter-of-factly as he munches on an apple slice.
Tofstad quickly recovers from her surprise and tells the boy to make sure that she has his new address.
For Tofstad and McCullough, they never know what will come out of the youths’ mouths, whether it’s foul language, a sob story or a kind word. But they are always prepared to deal with both the good and bad for the youths who visit the On-the-Rise farm near Springfield after school. The youths are participating in a program where they learn about the value of a solid work ethic, responsibility, compassion, sharing and self-confidence.
They do this the old fashioned way – through farm chores such as feeding the animals, gardening, cooking and sewing. The program is for youths ages 10 to 15 who are struggling with family, social, education and behavioral issues. Most are from Springfield city schools and have never been on a farm before.
“There’s a story behind every one of them,” Tofstad said. “They’re not bad; they can be very caring. A lot of times they don’t know how to handle themselves and often their parents don’t either.”
The On-the-Rise program started about eight years ago and was the brainchild of Tofstad and McCullough who had met years earlier in real estate school. The two became close and shared stories about their difficult childhoods and discovered they shared a passion in helping young people.
“We looked at each other and said, ‘What should we be when we grow up?’ This is it,” McCullough said.
It took several years before their dream became a reality. Since real estate wasn’t their passion, they both quit, getting jobs in different school systems. They stayed in contact over the years, though, and continued to talk about finding a way to fund their dream of helping at-risk youths. They found that way when McCullough started working with foster parents and met a woman who helped find start-up funding for the On-the-Rise program, and it started in 2002.
“Did I tell you how much I love this job? I can’t imagine doing anything else,” Tofstad said. “Most of the kids don’t want to leave when it’s time. They really feel safe here.”
Today, the program receives funding from the Clark County Department of Job and Family Services, Clark County Juvenile Court, local foundations and donations. Each year the program helps about 60 at-risk Springfield area boys and girls after school from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. There’s no mixing of the sexes, which helps keep the students on their best behavior, said McCullough, who lives on the farm with her family. During their three hours at the farm twice a week, the youths do farm chores, cook and do their homework. Students from nearby Wittenberg University volunteer to help keep the dozen or so students on task.
“I like the kids. Some of their stories are shocking, and it’s made me realize how lucky I am,” said Wittenberg junior Lizzy Hauser. “Some are very smart and just need some attention and guidance.”
On this fall day, the boys are scurrying around the 8-acre farm feeding the goats, turkeys and chickens, cleaning eggs, picking out sticks for a fire, peeling and chopping vegetables and cleaning up the mess that a goat made when he got out of his pen and tore into the feed. Twelve-year-old Mekhi, who wants to be a firefighter, likes feeding the turkeys but can’t stand the smell of the feed. He uses one hand to spread the feed and the other to cover his nose.
With the temperature starting to drop at night, McCullough has announced that they are cooking “hobo dinners” (tin-foil wrapped meals of hamburger and vegetables) on a fire, drawing cheers from the boys. The reason for the fire is two-fold: not only is it for cooking but it’s so the boys can enjoy its warmth. Some of the students are without heat in their homes.
“I feel so guilty when I drive home and it’s all warm and some of these kids have no heat. It’s just so sad what some of them have to live with. It’s amazing all the things they do to keep going,” Tofstad said, noting that some of the students come from abusive homes or are abusers themselves. The two women said they have a large stack of referrals for the program, most from the schools or courts. The demand is more than they can accommodate.
Fourteen-year-old Danial, who is collecting firewood with his “half best friend” 11-year-old Rodney, didn’t talk when he first started the program last summer. Now he talks easily as he describes what he likes about the farm. His favorite animal is a small goat named Sweetie Pie, which he and Rodney are struggling to put back in the pen. Rodney goes for the horns and Danial goes for the tail.
“All you need to do is give them love,” Danial said. “That’s the most important thing.”
Amy Beth Graves is a freelance writer from Franklin County.