The Farm, a man and a mission to help others

SNOHOMISH — In a small town known for its antiques, quaint Victorian homes and historic downtown, the Farm is an anomaly.

It’s just outside Snohomish city limits, wedged between a business that rents backhoes and a veterinary clinic.

It’s not a farm in any conventional sense. No wheat or corn or potatoes are grown here. And while plenty of animals are kept — including peacocks and a serval named Hercules — they are pets, not products.

The Farm’s assortment of structures include, for starters, a putt-putt golf course, a petting zoo and a long white tent where leather-clad bikers sometimes meet for church revivals.

At the center of it all is a farmhouse. Inside lives Bruce Karr, the breath and life of this place.

Karr used to be a regular Snohomish guy. He raised his children and loved dancing and tennis.

That was before the troubles. Before he sold his construction company. Before he built a ministry from little more than a failing heart and two hands.

Before he touched a thousand lives.

Christmas 2009

It’s a cold December afternoon at the Farm and the first of the big yellow school buses has arrived.

The bus grinds to a halt in a gravel lot. Inside, a tiny towheaded boy presses his hands against the glass and stares.

What he sees exists no place else.

This is a ministry that serves people who are difficult to serve: a place where a homeless man might find a place to sleep, where a troubled teenager might work off his community-service hours, where a disabled kids’ group might play a baseball game.

The ministry isn’t affiliated with any single church or organization. Its mission: feed the hungry, clothe the naked and love the unlovable. It draws donations and help from hundreds of people in the community.

On this day, a dozen buses shuttle hundreds of down-on-their-luck families from three counties to the Farm for the only Christmas they’ll likely get. The bus doors snap open and people begin filing out.

Lights and tinsel garlands twist around everything. The crisp air carries the scents of cocoa and buttered popcorn and a smoky fire crackling in a pit.

Santa is here and he’s brought presents for the children and makeovers for the moms. There’s a turkey dinner and a band waiting. All the children will take home new coats, new clothes, new shoes and new toys.

At the fire pit, Gilbert Martinez, 20, explains that this is not the type of ministry where Jesus is forced on people.

“It’s more about relationships and God is good,” he says. “I think that’s why it’s really successful.”

The town’s police chief, John Turner, is here. When Turner arrived in Snohomish two years ago, he initially had doubts about the Farm. People work with children for different reasons — sometimes not good ones. Then the police chief saw for himself.

Snohomish is a blue-collar town, a place with more than its share of kids wandering the streets and getting into trouble, he says. Karr has a gift for connecting with those kids and turning their lives around. That’s a difficult thing.

“They’re not all success stories,” he says. “But if you can turn one kid around, get one kid squared away — you’re making headway.”

Now when the Farm needs a donation, the police chief pulls out his checkbook.

‘A visionary nobody’

To understand the Farm, you must first understand Bruce Karr, a working-class man born and raised in Snohomish.

At a round-bellied 60, he looks like anybody’s dad. He’s glad to see visitors, even the prickly ones. He has a talent for making people feel they matter — and meaning it. When he asks for help, people have trouble saying no.

In many ways, he defies labels.

He’s a Christian who doesn’t regularly read the Bible or attend church. He’s a conservative who sometimes irritates Republican friends with his liberal leanings. He’s a work-with-his-hands man with pie-in-the-sky ideas.

In his own words, he‘s a “visionary nobody.”

“The more I put myself into this ministry, the more I disappear,” Karr says.

In the 15 years since Karr started the Farm, he’s taken on challenges many established charities wouldn’t touch. For instance, he invited mentally disabled teenagers to his home and trained them to work as grocery baggers.

People who know Karr describe him as someone who doesn’t let rules stop him from doing what he thinks is right. That last trait has meant success for the Farm — and sometimes trouble.

A hole in his heart

Bruce Karr vividly remembers the day he almost died.

It was 1994, and Karr, 44, was doing carpentry at a Vashon Island winery.

For weeks, Karr had felt a flu-like malaise. That day, it was so bad he couldn’t swing a hammer.

Some families pass cleft chins and bad knees down through the generations. His passed down heart disease.

At the hospital that day, the doctor told Karr his heart was rapidly failing. A hole gaped in one chamber of his heart. He had hours, maybe a day to live. Say goodbye to your children and straighten out your will, the doctor told him.

Lying in bed, waiting for death, Karr assessed his life.

He thought about his three children. They were a blessing. By then, all three were well on their way to becoming productive adults. Good people. A niece he’d helped raise also was doing well. He couldn’t be prouder.

Then he turned his mind’s eye to what else he had made of his life. He’d been divorced twice. There was the matter of his anger, his prejudices. He’d grown bitter since his brother and sister-in-law had been killed in a car crash.

Worst of all, he couldn’t shake the feeling he had done virtually nothing good with his time on Earth.

He imagined his life as a footprint — an itty-bitty insignificant one. He prayed that if God would only give him a second chance, he could do something that mattered, expand that footprint. After all, Jesus Christ lived to 33 and changed the world, he says.

Inspired by a vision

Death didn’t come then.

A week after doctors told Bruce Karr his heart would fail, he served as the cashier at his own estate sale. His diseased heart kept ticking and doctors couldn’t explain why. After a surgery to plug the hole in his heart, Karr should have rested. He didn’t.

After his death scare, Karr received a vision. It wasn’t a lightning bolt or a voice booming from the heavens. For the first time in his life, Karr says he truly believed. He listened. There was the message, as clear in his mind as if it were scrawled in bold print.

God told him to build a safe place for kids. Snohomish had virtually nothing to offer teenagers.

His grandmother’s farm seemed like the perfect location. As a child, the farm was the place he pedaled to on his bike when he needed to feel safe.

He remembers his tiny grandmother, Grace Bickford Reed, as a giant of a woman. She was a devout Christian, the kind of upright-but-loving woman who fed hobos from her garden.

At first, Karr felt uncomfortable talking about his vision. He recognized that most people, even church-going believers, would probably think he’d received a blow to the head rather than a message from God.

He tried explaining to family and friends anyway. Nobody thought it was a good idea.

By 1994, his grandmother had died and the farm property had fallen into disrepair. The nearby Pilchuck River had spilled its banks and the farmhouse was waterlogged, the land choked with weeds.

Weak from a failing heart, Karr got to work.

‘One on one’

By the end of that first year, he had fixed up the place enough to hold youth group meetings in the garage with a donated refrigerator full of soda and boxes of take-out pizza.

Karr reached out to other church organizations. Soon as many as 200 teenagers were showing up for weekly youth group meetings at the Farm.

He found unexpected help from an energetic college-age Chris Petterson, a natural with teens who planned to be a youth pastor. Karr thought Petterson would take over at the Farm. Within months of turning 24, Petterson died of cancer. Petterson’s death devastated Karr. He mourned. He kept pushing forward.

It wasn’t easy. Some kids who visited the Farm were abused, depressed, addicted and angry.

“Kids told me I sucked and this placed sucked,” Karr says.

But Karr proved to be particularly adept at dealing with tough kids. When one lashed out, he wouldn’t yell or get angry. He’d listen, not lecture.

Through the years, his kindness frequently hasn’t been returned. He and his wife, Vicki, had their wedding rings stolen, their farmhouse burglarized. One kid used their phone to run up a bill making sexually explicit calls.

It’s Karr’s belief that the roughest kids are looking for love and acceptance in all the wrong ways. If they’re shown respect and kindness, they melt like marshmallows.

One angry teen drew a swastika on a wall at the Farm. Karr, struggling for something positive to say, told him: “You know what I think — that’s the best swastika I’ve ever seen.”

The kid didn’t come back, and Karr painted over the symbol. He figures the boy was better for what little love he got at the Farm.

That persistence, that hope — sometimes it works. He has a drawer full of letters from the teens who thank him for turning them around.

“I’m not Billy Graham, I don’t fill football stadiums with people,” he says. “I take on one individual at a time. That’s how I like it and I think that’s what God chose me for — one on one.”

‘I walk my walk’

Dean Ekloff, better known as Pastor Dean, preaches the Gospel and rides a heritage Harley-Davidson soft-tail classic.

He used to be a town drunk, but he says God cleaned him up and showed him a better way. Since then, he’s worked as the pastor of the Midnight Cry Community Fellowship.

In 1996 Pastor Dean approached Bruce Karr about holding a tent revival, a days-long preaching-and-praise-Jesus event that included baptisms in a horse trough.

Karr welcomed the biker church. Some of the youth group parents complained. Karr eventually had to cordon part of the Farm with yellow caution tape to appease the parents.

Karr realized the people who needed his help most probably weren’t the kids from stable families. He began to reach out to homeless people and other tough cases — which sometimes put him at odds with his original supporters.

Karr says he caught flak for letting a fledgling church group hold services at the Farm. One pastor yelled because the Farm had hosted Mormon children. Another called to question him about his doctrine. Some were uncomfortable because he doesn’t proselytize.

“I don’t know if you are Buddhist or Muslim or Mormon,” he says. “I never ask. I walk my walk and that’s the most important thing — that I can lead.”

In 2005, the Farm’s board resigned. Former board member Jeff Duke, a veterinarian at the Pilchuck Veterinary Clinic, says the board grew uncomfortable with changes, including a petting zoo and the number of small cabins being built.

Both the animals and the buildings would eventually draw attention from Snohomish County officials, who said the Farm was violating a number of codes and rules, including building in a flood zone without permits. Although Karr and his wife have worked to fix some of these issues, some still remain unresolved.

“I think Bruce has a discernment about what’s needed and adapts his vision to it,” Duke says. “It’s an adaptable vision and that’s one of the things I admire and get frustrated with.”

Both Duke and Karr describe the split as amicable. Duke said he remains close friends with Karr and he continues to admire the work Karr is trying to accomplish.

“He just loves people,” Duke says. “It doesn’t matter who they are and he loves them more if they have a greater need.”

The Farm’s board now includes a woman who works at the Everett Gospel Mission, a high school administrator and a journeyman carpenter.

“It’s just the way Christ picked his disciples — not for political correctness or who they were in the community or their bank accounts,” Karr says.

Board member Pam Walsh, a case manager at the Everett Gospel Mission, says as someone who works with people in difficult situations, she respects and admires Karr for helping people — whatever the obstacles.

“He had a hole in his heart, and he asked God to let him live another day,” Walsh says. “He’d give each day to doing the Lord’s work — no matter what.”

A battle he can’t win

By 2008, the American Red Cross of Snohomish County named Karr its Humanitarian of the Year.

Around the time Karr accepted his award, he began experiencing back pain. A visit to the doctor revealed pancreatic cancer, Stage IV — a death sentence.

Karr doesn’t complain. Ask him how he’s feeling, and he’ll say: “I’m fine, I’m OK, great.”

He’s not. Cancer is tracing its corrosive fingers through his liver, his pancreas, his kidneys. So little of his backbone is left, he needs a stiff brace to sit. The pain is constant.

He spends his days lying in bed, in the room where his grandmother used to pray on her knees. Now his hair is graying at the temples. Medicine bottles form up like soldiers on his bed stand, ready to help fight a battle he can’t win.

In the midst of his pain, he’s experienced an upwelling of support — cards, visits, offers to volunteer. For Karr, there’s still this terrible thought: what happens when I’m gone?

“It scares me, it concerns me. I see the volunteers — they love the feeling that’s happening here and I’m sure it will go on somehow. God will figure it out. I’ve done everything I could. Maybe God will keep me around for a long time so I can train somebody else. Maybe someone else will come around the corner.”

Christmas 2009

Bruce Karr talks about the magic of the Farm. He insists you can feel it, too.

On gray winter days when the Farm is empty of activity, when Karr is confined to making fundraising calls from his sick bed, the magic is harder to sense: at times like this, the buildings and hand-me-down play equipment seem as forlorn as a deflated balloon.

Somehow the Farm becomes more than the sum of its parts when people come. When volunteers gather in the garage to sort baby clothes. When the delivery truck arrives on Tuesdays with groceries for the hungry. When hundreds of children swarm the Farm at Easter searching for plastic eggs filled with sweets.

The day of the Christmas celebration is one of those days, and Karr knows this one may be his last.

He’s sitting in a chair in his bedroom, his back held straight with the brace. He’s been sitting here for hours — hair neatly combed, pain medication taken, prayers said — waiting.

He’s thinking about the families on their way to the Farm, and worrying if there will be enough presents, whether this celebration will be the best yet. Outside, an army of volunteers, people drawn from this community, have turned the place into a Christmas wonderland.

“I want to give them some memories, something positive they can hold on to as long as they can,” he says.

Karr wants to be at the center of it all. He’s helped to the big white tent and settled next to a Christmas tree in a power wheelchair. Families come into the tent hungry. A Christian rock band is playing. Volunteers seat the families and serve them plates of steaming turkey and mashed potatoes and plates of cupcakes.

Many of those people probably don’t know the man sitting near the Christmas tree. They don’t know that all of this sprang from one man with little more to offer than a failing heart and faith.

And that doesn’t bother Karr — not in the least.

He just sits and watches and smiles at a footprint grown beyond measure.

Debra Smith: 425-339-3197, dsmith@heraldnet.com.

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