On a sunny and warm October afternoon, on a Thursday at a small farm in Ladonia, a community in Russell County, boys and girls of various ages are roasting marshmallows in front of a campfire under supervision, while one of the other adults is showing a younger child the turkeys in a nearby pen. The turkeys refuse to gobble until a car pulls up, which everyone finds funny.

Other kids are down at the pond fishing with a couple of adults. Fishing rod in hand, a little boy and his caretaker pray for success. Prayer seemed to have done the trick. Boy and caretaker come up the hill, a hefty shellcracker dangling from the line. The boy’s face shines with pride and excitement for his first fish as everyone marvels at the catch and takes pictures, praising him and the Lord.

A few yards out, there is a fenced pasture with older children riding a couple of horses with adult guidance. All of kids are a little shy, but at ease. This farm isn’t growing your typical crops. These farmers sow seeds for success. They grow hope and happiness, but more importantly, their bounty is freedom and faith in God for children and families in crisis. It’s just another beautiful day at Freedom Farm, a local nonprofit with 501c3 status that does a lot more than one afterschool program.

The Freedom Farm Afterschool Program sprang from the partnership with the Russell County School District, after RCSD Director of Prevention and Support Services Jacob Johnson reached out.

“Freedom Farms was one of our first partners in Russell County Schools this year, as part of our push to find mental health and student wellness resources,” Johnson said. “As Alabama expects school districts to support students beyond the classroom on a greater level of intervention, we have been searching for programs of various kinds to provide students the extra support they often need. The therapeutic nature of Freedom Farm has been very beneficial to the students who currently participate in their program, and the staff have shown they truly want to make a difference in the lives of the children of our community.”

Currently, the Freedom Farm Afterschool Program hosts 10 different children and their families, and there are about that many referrals pending for the program. The program was written to host up to 40 kids, according to Katie Clampitt, Executive Director, but it takes time to check all the boxes to get the kids in the program. She wrote the Afterschool program and said that with staff, the program costs approximately $120,000 for the year.

Freedom Farm: The Beginning

Owned by Amy and Donnie Lumpkin, Freedom Farm began about a year ago but really took off in January 2022. Donnie is the pastor at Church on the Rock, off Hwy. 80.

“My husband and I went to Big Oak Ranch, which is an organization that has foster kids,” said Amy. “We did an interview with them, and we toured their property. We saw them making a difference in kids’ lives, and the Lord just laid on our heart.”

Amy said there are approximately 3.5 million kids in Alabama who are in need of intervention.

“We saw what they were doing (Big Oak Ranch) and partnered with them,” she said. “They gave us a lot of information that we needed. So, that started our vision. We love kids. There are a lot of kids in our area, especially the Russell County area, that need guidance.”

She said there are a lot of drugs and neglect being seen. Freedom Farms has now partnered with Russell County School District to build relationships with the kids who need them.

“(We) first connect with them and find out what’s wrong, and hopefully build a relationship with them, and introduce them to the Lord and meet their needs – whatever they may be,” Amy said.

The Farm also helps families in crisis, not just individual children. They hope to help families and prevent kids from needing to enter the foster system. The partnership with Russell County acted as a catalyst for expansion beyond assisting individual kids in the foster system to helping kids outside of the foster system and their families.

“Really, our heart is the Lord’s,” Amy said, “and he loves these kids, and so we love them. He just laid it in our hearts to do a ministry with aged-out foster kids, but then we couldn’t leave out the foster kids. So, we just want to do a little bit of all of it – whatever we can do…”

Aged-out foster children can no longer depend on the support and protection of the foster system after they turn 18 and become legal adults. A lot of times, too many, these young people are left on their own to find their way as there are few resources to bridge the gap between being fostered and being successfully independent. Freedom Farm is working with our local Dept. of Human Resources to connect with kids aging out of the foster care system and to have a certified residential program.

Meet Jay Marie

While not in a foster care situation, one 18-year-old had to quickly leave a terrible living situation. With nowhere to turn, Jay Marie ended up asking for help at the homeless shelter at Valley Rescue Mission in Columbus; however, she couldn’t legally stay there because she was under 21 years of age. Someone there connected her with Freedom Farm. Now, her future looks a lot brighter.

Jay Marie is a beautiful, intelligent, vivacious, inquisitive, and talented young woman. Since being at the Farm, she started earning her GED through the Bridge Academy online program and hopes to go to college. She is also a talented special effects artist with her own Instagram page and followers. She even owns a car, but it isn’t safe to drive yet as it needs mechanical work. The program is working with local businesses for mentoring. Jay Marie will be shadowing leadership at different businesses to give her a glimpse of what a career in that business is like, so that she can be wise in the path she chooses for herself. She is interested in being a Applied Behavior Analyst (ABA) and working with autistic children. Jay Marie is also interested in working with animals.

“We’re working with an autism clinic to let her shadow them for the day; then, she’s going to be shadowing an event in Columbus (Ga.),” said Clampitt.

Many young women and young men, who have aged out of foster care, have nowhere to go and no idea what to do and fall prey to predators on the street. If they survive, their lives are forever changed as they become trapped in a terrible situation, their lives and future often under the nefarious control of others. Jay Marie is one of the lucky ones thanks to Freedom Farms and those kind souls who lit her path on the way there.

“I was about to live in my car until I got some help,” Jay Marie said. “I love it here. Everyone has made me feel so welcome. I’m very happy.”

As for school, she said that if she can get a scholarship and secure funding for college, somewhere like Columbus State University, that she would like to study psychology or business.

“If this (Freedom Farm) wasn’t here, I would probably be living in my car, and I wouldn’t be able to take that next step,” she said. “I wasn’t really prepared…they really saved my life.”

The Future of Freedom Farms

Sitting on the property is a large trailer that is being rehabbed to house young adults who have aged out of the foster system. They hoped to have it done in a couple of weeks. Right now, they can only house three or four people, but there are also plans to build tiny homes on the property to foster independent living.

“Getting approved for that application is a process, which it should be,” said Clampitt. “It’s just going to take some time.”

Once the residential program is approved and off the ground, residents will start with intake at the farm, but they can’t just immediately move into a tiny house. They must work through the program to get to that stage, and while they will be living independently, there will always be someone keeping an eye out for them while they are at the Farm. The site is currently mapped out for just three of the tiny homes, which will probably be 600 sq. ft., but the goal is 10 and construction should start soon.

“We have people who live here. They are not house parents, but they are monitoring them, working with them, and teaching them basic life skills,” she said. “Once they get to a certain phase of the program, they’re eligible for a tiny home. They will be living on their own, but still in community.”

Clampitt said that a big part of the mission is getting the word out to the community and to other nonprofits to let them know that Freedom Farm is here.

“Then, when they do encounter these kids, they will know where to send them,” she added.

Funding

Freedom Farm is applying for monies through various foundations in the area. Right now, they don’t have any state funds from grants. The Farm also depends on donations from local businesses and community members.

“Everything we’ve done so far has been funded with just community donations,” Clampitt said. “We really have some great community supporters. We also have people who volunteer and want to mentor kids, whether it is taking them fishing, helping them make a S’more, or just spending time with them, investing in them – it’s really awesome to see.”

If you are interested in donating, volunteering, or mentoring and need more information, you can contact Freedom Farm by calling 334-377-2001, visiting them on Facebook, or contact them on their website at www.freedomfarmcrossroad.com.

Upcoming Events

Freedom Farm is asking the community to partner with them in their support of our youth who are in crisis. They are offering a fresh Fraser fir Christmas tree for a $100 donation. Sizes vary from five feet to nine feet tall. Quantities are limited, but your tree will be officially reserved when your donation is received. To donate for a tree, you’ll need to fill out a reservation form. You can find the form on their website: Freedomfarmcrossroad.com.

On Dec. 3, Freedom Farm will be hosting its First Annual Christmas Village event at Common Grounds coffee house, 4307 Auburn Rd, from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. There will be vendors, food, and lots of free activities.

On Dec. 9, there will be a Christmas Gala from 6 p.m. until 9 p.m. ET at the Bibb Mill Event Center, 3715 1st Ave, in Columbus. For a $1,000 donation, business owners can have their business name on a table placard and will also receive four tickets to the event, which includes dinner and live music. If tickets are purchased online, please know that there is a service fee applied by the payment processor, or a check can be mailed to 4602 Highway 80, Phenix City, AL 36870 to secure the table. For more information, call 334-377-2001 or visit the website at www.freedomfarmcrossroad.com.

WRITER’S NOTE: This story was of special importance to me. I don’t want to get into the how or why of my personal experience, but I spent more than a year in an orphanage and nine years in the foster system in another state. When I turned 18, I had no idea what to do except to try to get a job. I made it, but it wasn’t easy. I’m one of the lucky ones. More programs like Freedom Farm are needed to save children who are our future. I hope the community will give its support to this program. The children of Russell County need it.