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Wednesday, Jun 20, 2018
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Jackson: Farm plants seeds of love, kindness, success

SHADY HILLS The nature of daughters is to feud with their mothers. Or so says Christine Collins, who has been — and thus experienced — both roles. Whether the dynamic is indeed inevitable will not be sorted out here. This is not a scientific journal. Nor are we aware of any definitive studies. Instead, we will take Collins’ word for it that the phenomenon is sufficiently prevalent to be, in and of itself, unremarkable, like summer thunderstorms on the Nature Coast. Maybe they don’t bubble up every afternoon, but their frequency recommends being prepared. On the topic of mother-daughter friction, it’s not just Collins’ own track record instructing her, but also those of the women who come to her impassioned attention on the 10 scruffy acres off Laura Lee Drive lately known as Pay It Forward Farm.
The farm part of the name is a misnomer, at least as farms are commonly understood. In its third year of operation, the critical hump year, say Collins’ confidants in the roiling not-for-profit sector, Pay It Forward Farm grows nothing that comes in seed packets or can’t be planted until the last threat of frost has passed. But this is not to say there’s no cultivating or harvesting going on out there. Beginning with women who arrive (sometimes assigned by judges) hoping to rise above their stormy histories, Pay It Forward nurtures course corrections and, says Collins, nine times in 10 harvests new lives. Which brings us, more or less, to Collins’ theory of mothers and daughters. Pay It Forward’s farm hands might arrive nursing a wide variety of breaking points, but traced to their origins, Collins says, and more often than not you find rebellious daughters willing to align with men who were fragile, unreliable, duplicitous and downright dangerous simply to get from under mom’s control-freak roof. That, in essence, was her mom’s story, and it became Collins’ as well, and only by the grace of self-awareness did it not become her daughter’s as well. And that’s where the story of Pay It Forward truly begins. A regional marketing director for HoneyBaked Hams who’d found and married the preternaturally cheerful but otherwise sober, in every useful sense of the term, Paul Rauch, Collins told her teenaged daughter they were there to provide whatever she needed, but extras were up to her. When the girl decided she would go into lawn maintenance, Collins hitched a small red trailer to a Mustang GT and before you could say “xeriscaping,” the pair had launched a Florida-friendly landscaping business comprised entirely of women — mostly single moms. “We had an exotic dancer, a bartender from Paradise Lakes, a former prostitute,” Collins says. “We had some really beautiful women in our crews. “One day, some guy is watching us work and he says, ‘Y’all would make a lot more money if you wore bikinis.’” To which the former prostitute shot back, “We service lawns, sir, not libidos.” But even when the company had maxed out its capabilities and gone coed — Rauch was coaxed into the mix — Collins sensed a hole in her spirit. And one night, out of a dead sleep, the hole spoke to her. “It was God,” says Collins. “And God said, ‘Stop fighting your mother.’ Past 50, Collins was at last able to recognize the mother-daughter dynamic for what it had been — “We were both bullheaded” — and, as she refocused on belated forgiveness, she saw how each had benefited from the kindnesses of others. She would have a farm, she decided, and on that farm she would teach assorted self-related skills and principles: reliance, sustainment, awareness, respect and love. She would start that farm on the 5 acres (she bought the adjacent 5 acres in a foreclosure sale) her mom owned on Laura Lee Drive. And she would name the farm for its purpose: pay it forward. Under the watchful eyes of Collins and her teachers, the farm’s clients earn certifications in horticulture, Microsoft operations, property management and repair, and other skills handy in the recovering job marketplace. And, because the temptation to backslide is ever-present, they are routinely asked, “What are you doing today that gets you closer to your goal?” Collins’ success, the result of the farm’s devotion to “spreading seeds of love and kindness every day,” is sufficiently established to have sprouted a mature list of needs, mostly involving transportation (a dismaying number of clients have no driver’s licenses, let alone reliable vehicles) and skilled subcontractors for rehabilitating buildings on the property. And all of it is presided over by a near life-size polypropylene statue of Jesus in a corner of the Joni Hartnett Learning Center, not because Pay It Forward’s curriculum or philosophy is overtly Christian (although Collins and the farm’s board are adherents). Polypropylene Jesus came to the farm after Pay It Forward volunteers discovered him, faded and forgotten, in an elderly woman’s piled-up garage, Dumpster-bound. “You find Jesus in a garage,” Collins says, “you can’t just throw him out.” In a rare act of reverse salvation no doubt charged with redemptive implications, PJ was rescued and restored. For preachers in search of a summertime theme, where believers find Jesus, and what they do when he appears, is a series of sermons that practically writes itself. But Collins’ reverence cuts across party lines. If they ever find an abandoned Buddha or a castoff Confucius (not to snub Muhammad, but Islam forbids images in his likeness), his replica will find welcome alongside the Beatific One. Collins’ conviction regarding the guidance of a divine hand does not end there. Last August, 21-year-old Mallory Alber was hiding from her baby’s father, a crystal-meth addict, in Kansas City, Mo., when Pay It Forward volunteers knocked on her grandparents’ door in Spring Hill. Pay It Forward’s board quickly intervened, finding Alber shelter through the local sheriff long enough for the grandparents to fetch her here. Ten months later, Alber is on track for a GED, a driver’s license, a Habitat for Humanity house and enrollment at Pasco-Hernando Community College, where she plans to train as an ultrasound technician. Meanwhile, daughter Ava, 17 months, is a babbling, toddling, unafraid miracle, the biggest threat to her well-being still wasting away in the Midwest. Worshippers at the Temple of Random Events may chalk it up to serendipity, but Mallory and Ava are but one example, and Christine Collins, jolted from slumber onto the Road to Damascus and an epiphany about mothers and daughters, understands differently.

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