Sowing and harvesting hope

photography by Jordan Weiland

Looking out across acres of farmland off of State Road 92 in east Lakeland, it’s obvious that hope is both sown and harvested at Hope Springs Preserve, a fully functional farm owned and operated by Hope Now. I am amazed by the work done on Hope Springs Preserve.

Hope Now provides transitional rehabilitative services to men and women struggling with life controlling issues. Clients make an eight-month commitment to learning how to lead a life of recovery. Working with clients in an intense inpatient setting for phase one of treatment, and on an outpatient basis toward the end, Hope Now provides a three-pillar approach to rehabilitation that includes transitional living, educational, and clinical services. What makes Hope Now successful is the program’s ability to provide sound therapy to clients while they reside in a drug-free, structured environment (

On a warm fall afternoon, Jim Pearson, the head farmer, and Jason Weiland, the operations director, gave me a tour of the grounds and talked to me about the Hope Now program. Pearson motioned to the several thousand trees that stretch across the field. The trees are surrounded by a variety of plant life, making Hope Springs Preserve a lush and productive farm. With the help of workers, participants in Hope Now’s program, Pearson has been slowly reshaping these 80+ acres of land while also bringing new life to the men who work it alongside him.

As we walked, we heard only the sounds of nature around us, our feet crunching the leaves on the path. Pearson, in his gentle, Southern drawl, explained the work he does. “Me and the guys, we cleared this all out last summer. These were all trees and brush, and we cleaned it out, made this path, and we’re starting another path over there to take us around the lake.”’

He explained the various leafy greens along the path as we walked. Not wanting to compete with local growers, most are exotic plants that have been brought in to give the farm a distinct difference from other farms in Central Florida.

“This is katuk. It’s a Chinese plant that grows in the shade,” he said. And later, “This is called pandan. It’s from India, and it’s very popular. It’s used like we would use eucalyptus.”

Pearson described every plant with great care as we walked, but it was obvious he was most proud of the vast field of moringa trees that populate the center of the farm. Moringa trees are native to Africa and Asia, and known for their numerous nutritional uses. They’re also a highly-sought-after green by local chefs. Several thousand moringa trees have been planted in the field, and another thousand still grow in pots near the greenhouse waiting to be planted.

“As far as we know, we have the largest crop of moringa in the Southeast. I was reading about a guy that had 1,100 trees. He was proud of his crop, and I thought to myself, ‘Well son of a gun!’” Pearson said.

The moringa plant is well known for its cleansing properties. The workers often take the leaves and eat them in salads with other leafy greens or grind them into a powder that can be turned into capsules that help detox the body. This detail is especially important because the people who work the farm with Pearson are recovering addicts, most of whom are recovering from substance abuse and living in a state of detox.

As Pearson and Weiland continued to walk me through the farm, the parallels between the new life that grows on the farm and the rehabilitation they foster with recovering addicts are unmistakable. Hope Now is bringing something new, pure, and hopeful to a group of Lakelanders who have very few options for hope.

With the help of workers, participants in Hope Now’s program, Pearson has been slowly reshaping these 80+ acres of land while also bringing new life to the men who work it alongside him.

“Our clients are hard workers,” Weiland told me. “They want to work and make an honest living. A lot of them have great skill and talent, and we spend a lot of time talking about what their personal strengths are. Th ey’ve built propagation tables and pole barns [at the preserve]. It helps a lot with their recovery.”

This positive affirmation is something that not many of Hope Now’s clients are used to. And, for many clients, this could be the last option for rehabilitation.

Marcus Stern, founder and lead consultant at MH Stern Consulting, is a Hope Now board member and former Lakelander. He’s also the lead on Hope Now’s capital campaign and part of the original founding team. Started in 2010, Hope Now began because a group of Lakelanders saw an alarming trend in recidivism in Polk County.

Though he and his family relocated to Dallas some time ago, Stern believes so strongly in the program that he has committed to flying back once a month to support its mission. “A lot of people in this program … this is their last stop,” he said. “They’ve burned a lot of bridges with people in their lives. It’s the last place for these people to be restored and transformed.

“We were seeing three generations of a family come through the system because of the same crime. We work with a lot of moms and dads who want to get out of what they’re doing and lead productive lives.”

Without Hope Now, many participants would be left with only the option to continue the life they’d been leading. Rehabilitation services are often quite expensive to the individual; incarceration is expensive to the taxpayer. But Hope Now has found a way to provide a successful rehabilitation experience that’s also inexpensive. The low-cost programming at Hope Now provides an option that a lot of their clients wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford. Both Stern and Weiland commented that many of the clients they serve are at 200 percent below the poverty level.

Stern noted, “The key thing is the impact that this program makes on Polk County. The impact is deeply rooted economically. We’re keeping people out of jails and in a less cost-prohibitive program. We’re taking potential inmates and helping them become contributors and not consumers.”

Clients in Hope Now’s program contribute not only on the farm, but also by working in a discount furniture store. The staff at Hope Now believes these programs are crucial in creating sustainability for both the clients and the program. In the future, they hope to create even more business through a program called “Hope Biz” that will provide more training opportunities for their clients and the people of Polk County.

Working on the farm provides clients with real life training and is especially successful at helping them learn how to live a well-balanced life. In their daily program, the staff focuses on teaching the clients wellness and self-care. They learn how to be mindful of what’s in their food, and how to eat and cook healthy meals. Working with the plants on the farm is a major part of that. Every plant on the farm has been planted and cared for by the men and the women in the program. This also helps instill a love and respect for what they’re eating. Most of the clients aren’t familiar with healthy eating and living, and most haven’t been exposed to work of this kind.

The program Hope Now has created is incredibly intentional at making sure the clients are in a homelike environment and that they’re learning about work ethics and living in community.

“We are unique in that we are a full-spectrum program: housing, counseling, vocational. We have a big challenge,” said Executive Director Dr. Joseph Cox. “We want to treat everyone like an individual, and instill hope and forward momentum in their lives.”

Cox hopes to do this by helping clients be prepared vocationally through aspects of the program like Hope Biz.

Clients live on site at the Hope Now facilities in Bartow and Lakeland (men are housed in the Bartow facility; women in Lakeland) and are transported back and forth to the farm. Hope Now’s goal is to have residents living on the farm so they can expand and include things like chicken coops and apiaries, and produce eggs, free-range chicken, and honey. They also hope to be able to open the Hope Springs Preserve experience to teach any Polk County resident who’s interested in learning how to successfully grow their own backyard gardens.

To reach these goals, Hope Now needs help from the community; they can’t do it alone. Volunteers are needed to help make meals for the men and women in the program, or to come spend time and plan activities for Hope Now’s residents.

They’re optimistic that Lakelanders will use their time, treasure, and talents to help Hope Now’s residents move forward and invest in the community the same way the residents of Hope Now are learning to use their own time, treasure, and talents to invest in their community.

“All my life, I’ve helped others get unstuck and seen dreams get picked up,” Cox said.

It’s time for Lakelanders to help Hope Now and its residents pick up their own dreams. This spring, Hope Now will launch a capital campaign to help further the dreams of the Hope Now mission, and they’re hoping that community leaders, donors, and advocates will join them in their work.

“When I started this work with Hope Now, there were no salaries. It was all volunteers. It’s the most challenging job I’ve ever had, but I tell you what, I sleep well at night,” Cox said with a smile.

Saving county taxpayers money, rehabilitating our people, teaching the community about healthy habits … we should all sleep better, thanks to Dr. Cox and the staff at Hope Now.

It’s hard work bettering the community, but with the help of Hope Now, we can all do it.


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