Kelly Mills, Discovering Hope
I was fifteen years old, staying in an emergency shelter, when I discovered that some of my belongings had been stolen by others at the shelter. At the time, this was the least of my worries, as I found myself constantly surrounded by violence and drug use at the shelter. The police came to break up fights and staff conducted “shakedowns” of the building in search of drugs. I was at the shelter for 95 days, well over the 30-day limit, as I awaited a more permanent placement.
I ended up in the hospital for severe depression. I was considering suicide at the time. I had been living with my mother and younger brother in a trailer, and I suffered years of abuse at the hands of a few different people in my life. I had tried everything I knew to escape – I tried to run away, starve myself for attention, and even got caught with a carpet knife at school. I wanted a way out of the chaos. I did not know at the time that help was waiting for me.
I remember when I first arrived at Happy Hill Farm Academy in Granbury, Texas – the “permanent placement” that I transferred to after my stay at the emergency shelter the summer before my junior year of high school. I had interviewed at two residential programs, and felt drawn to the Farm. As I stepped onto the Farm for the first time, it felt surreal. I thought, “People can’t really be this nice!” It took me awhile to adjust to this new environment and to realize that I could trust the people that would become my new family.
I lived with married houseparents who taught me how to be cared for and how to care for others. Having never lived in a functional family environment, it was critical that I experienced what healthy family life could be. While we received unconditional love, we were also taught discipline. This had a huge impact on me as I had never experienced a form of discipline that was consistent, predictable, and done in love. As far as my education, I received individual attention and encouragement that later helped me attain my college diploma.
During my senior year at the Farm, I moved into the privileged house (a nicer house with five girls and individual bedrooms that I had earned for good behavior). My housefather, Mr. Cripe, became a father figure to me that year. He was a genuine person and I looked up to him in ways I never had with my biological father.
After graduating from Happy Hill Farm Academy, I earned my Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration and my Masters in Accounting. I went to work for one of the Big Four accounting firms for five years, becoming a Certified Public Accountant in the process. I am now a director at an investment firm in Dallas. I owe my career to Happy Hill Farm Academy, particularly Mrs. Jacobs, my very first accounting teacher at the Farm. She told me that I had found my calling, and apparently, she was right.
My life would be very different had I not attended Happy Hill Farm Academy. My three best friends from public school never graduated: one became pregnant, one became heavily involved in drugs, and the third just decided that authority was not something she wanted to deal with. I could have ended up like any one of them. At the Farm, however, I learned valuable lessons and gained the leadership skills, compassion, and ability to truly apply myself. Most importantly, I transformed from a girl who thought she was beyond repair to a woman who understood and experienced hope.
The most significant and life-changing experience that residential education provided was unconditional love and guidance. It was a foreign concept to me and I had spent years feeling unworthy of love. Once I learned that it was okay to be imperfect and that I could be loved despite that, I felt unbelievably free to be the best I could be without fear of rejection. Now, my greatest joy is passing that love onto others. I have a boyfriend, Matt, and a cocker spaniel named Toby that I love to spend time with, and I love to help others – whether at work or my friends.
I thank Mr. and Mrs. Shipman, the founders of Happy Hill Farm and the keys that unlocked my heart. Mr. Shipman has always been a father to me – to this day, I can call him if I need advice or just want to meet up for lunch. There are many great programs out there, but the need among at-risk youth is so large that we must all do what we can to further the cause. Residential education has changed my life forever.