Women leaving the Amish community find support from nonprofit organizations
Amish people who decide to leave their community to live in "English," or non-Amish American, culture are typically around 18 years old and have limited resources. In Greenwich, Ohio, the faith-based nonprofit organization Mission to Amish People, also known as MAP, offers Amish women temporary housing, employment and the basic necessities to transition.
Rhoda Schmuker has been living in one of MAP’s apartments since July of 2022. She left her Amish upbringing in Indiana just a few days before her 18th birthday. She said it’s freeing to wear patterned clothing and dye her hair any color she wants. So far, she’s dyed it green, blue and now black.
Under MAP’s guidance, Schmuker got a job, passed her GED test and learned how to drive a car, things she was not allowed to do in her former community.
She grew up in the Old Order Amish religion where those practicing aren’t allowed to own a car, have electricity or go to school past the eighth grade. She said the longer she lives in English culture, the less likely she will return.
“Now, I can think about college if I want to. Look into options about college or I mean just to get jobs. There's a lot of jobs where you don’t need a college education, but you do need a GED. So, it opens up a lot of possibilities.”
It’s “empowering,” she said.
It’s a rainy Wednesday afternoon in January at New Beginnings Homestead, housing operated by MAP, where Schmuker lives. The ranch style home has the capacity to house 12 former Amish women and house parents. House parents are live-in staff who provide emotional support to the women. They also help the women with life skills, such as learning how to budget and manage money.
Employment experience and training
MAP also includes Beyond Measure Market, a bulk food store and deli where the women can work and gain job experience.
Executive Director Joe Keim founded MAP in 2001 and has taken in more than 200 Amish people. He said he couldn’t keep up with the number of people that needed immediate shelter.
Keim and his wife Esther also grew up Amish and left the church.
“We helped them with the same needs that we had when we came out, which was, you need a Social Security number,” he said. “Sometimes people needed birth records, never had one, no records of any sorts. And then driving lessons and driving license, a car and a job.”
He added that people leave for various reasons, such as family problems. And it’s easier for men to adapt to the English world than women because former Amish who own construction companies regularly hire those men. And they’re good paying jobs, but women don't have the same opportunities to build skills and gain employment.
“There’s a few women that have businesses like bakeries and little home businesses, but they’re not able to offer the girls coming out what the guys are able to offer the guys,” Keim said.
At the market, cashier and "Englisher" Tammy Thompson helps a customer at the register. The market employs "Englishers" to run the day-to-day operations. Former Amish women learn how to interact with those outside their community and gain skills for a better paying job, like Schmuker has. In January, she started a job at a factory through a temp agency, and she’s hoping to be hired full-time.
House parents Mike and Kelly Campbell helped Schmuker connect with the temp agency. Mike said the main purpose of their job is to be there for the women.
“They don’t always have anybody else,” he said. “So, it’s really whatever they need, but mentoring is a huge thing. And it definitely changes — what they need and what they need mentored on.”
Women leaving their Amish community have the most needs when they first arrive at MAP, he added, because they’re learning an entirely new culture and may need help acquiring certain documents like a Social Security card.
Women are expected to sign off on a list of guidelines for participating in the MAP program, such as weekly meetings with house parents. Keim said he’s had to be more selective of who participates in the program because of prior incidents with property damage and challenges due to mental illness. He said that many people who leave the Amish community face severe emotional challenges, and while MAP does pay for counseling services, the program isn’t set up to navigate serious mental health issues.
Mental health resources available to former Amish people
Jon Bohley is the clinical director at Spring Haven Counseling Center in Dundee, Ohio. He said that 40% of the clientele are Amish or from the Plain community. Plain people are Christian groups characterized by separation from the world and by simple living, including plain dressing in modest clothing. While Bohley said there isn’t a difference in emotional needs between the English and Amish, he said if someone already has depression or anxiety, challenges with mental health can increase during a stressful life event like leaving your community.
“An enormous change like that is a stressor. And so that’s going to put pressure on your system, on your body," he said. "Now, how your body responds to that pressure is going to vary person to person.”
Amish Liaison Dennis Keim, who is a member of the Amish community, works at Spring Haven to assist those in his community who are dealing with mental health issues. He said the most important part of his job is to listen to the person calling. Then, he connects them to the resource that fits their needs. They may need an emergency room visit, help scheduling an appointment with the nurse practitioner to get medication, help scheduling a counseling session for therapy or treatment at their inpatient facility, Woodside Rest.
“I will get calls where people are in a psychotic episode, and they have no idea what to do next,” he said.
He receives an average of 100 calls a week, he added. Some are new patients, but many are existing clients.
Spring Haven’s purpose is to meet the needs of the person, not to influence them to stay in or to leave the Amish community.
A secular-based non-profit in New York, Amish Heritage Foundation, is another option for Amish women. It offers education and counseling services and provides safe housing.
Founder and Executive Director Torah Bontrager said they’ve helped more than 1,000 women, including those from Ohio.
“These are not women who are all leaving, but that’s what’s unique about us is that we help those inside the practicing community as well as those who are not practicing anymore and those who are transitioning.”
Aside from traditional counseling and mental health services, there is not a secular support organization serving people leaving the Amish community in Ohio.
At New Beginnings, Schmuker plans to stay a while and is focused on the future. She’s thinking about going to college and she’s saving to purchase her own car.