The Story of Amish Girl Emma Gingerich’s Escape

By: Amanda Lucas | Last updated: Feb 07, 2024

Emma Gingerich was just eighteen years old when she escaped her Amish community in Missouri for a new life as part of the greater society or as the Amish like to call it, the “English world.”

Her coming-of-age story and taking a chance on herself is a lesson in reaching for your dreams, believing in yourself, and never giving up hope. This is Emma Gingerich’s Great Amish Escape.

The Amish Way of Life

Before we dive into Emma’s story it is important to understand a bit about the Amish. The Amish community in the United States dates back to the founding of the country. Composed of primarily German Anabaptists and Mennonites, the Amish are known for a simpler way of life in our ever-increasing modern existence.

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Self-sufficiency, plain dress, humility, and resistance to modern technology are the hallmarks of most Amish communities, but there is always more than meets the eye, especially for an outsider.

Their lifestyle harkens back to a time when one did not send a text to have a conversation but rather individuals would speak face-to-face, and family time was not to be infringed upon. In short, the Amish way of life, on the surface, is strikingly different from the fast-paced, overly technologically reliant culture we live in today.

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For some, like Emma Gingerich, the traditional Amish life pales compared to the possibilities of the outside world. It is a confined space that may leave many wanting more, not knowing what that yearning for more truly is. Emma never felt like she fit in completely inside the world she grew up in.

Contented Simplicity

Gingerich grew up one of fourteen children in Eagleville, Missouri, approximately one and a half hours north of Kansas City on Interstate 35. Her family made handwoven baskets which they sold.

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Emma’s family was extremely strict, and she was guided towards the life that most traditional Amish women lead– cooking for their family, raising children, gardening, and maintaining a clean home. In Gingerich’s Amish community, it was forbidden to use any electricity or battery-operated equipment, not to mention running water. They all got around on outdated forms of transport by only buggy or horseback.

While many Amish women are still expected to follow the traditions handed down through the generations, it is no longer uncommon for Amish women to work outside the home or to further their education.

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Emma on the left as a child in her Amish community Source: Emma Gingerich

The Ordnung, the Amish rules for living, are different for each community and can vary widely from each district so vast differences between the conservative and progressive Amish communities can occur.

One such conservative Amish community is the “Swartzentruber Amish,” the community Gingerich’s family was a part of. Considered to be the least modern of the Amish, the name “Swartzentruber” in German comes from the tradition of only bathing once a week on Saturdays.

Emma Gingerich looking at her childhood schoolhouse from the top of a hill ; Source: Emma Gingerich / Instagram

They are the most well-known Amish group and the most traditionalist.

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The strictly conservative Gingerich family was prohibited from living with any type of modern amenity such as electricity, running water, or a motor vehicle. Emma’s main mode of transportation growing up was the traditional horse and buggy.

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Despite growing up in the United States, Emma spoke German and knew little English.

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Most Amish communities speak Pennsylvania Dutch, a form of German when speaking within their community. English is used when speaking to those from the outside world.

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The Mennonite communities, who are less strict, do speak English in their day-to-day lives. Emma Gingerich did not have this opportunity in her education with her family in Eagleville

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Gingerich attended school until the age of fourteen, through the eighth grade. At this point, her education was completed, and she was expected to work.

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Before this, Emma was happy with her life but once she began to clean homes in her neighborhood, she began to realize that there was quite a bit more out there for her in the world.

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More To The World

Once Gingerich left school as a teenager, she began to feel that she did not fit into her Amish community. The life that awaited her did not appeal to her. The inflexibility of the rules and lack of freedom began to gnaw at Emma as well as a terrifying experience she had when she was sixteen years old.

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It is always challenging when stepping into the unknown and even more so when you don’t have the tools and resources to support you. Adding to feeling isolated from her community, Emma easily could have ended up going through a downward spiral, but she refused to give up on herself.

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Emma’s family brought a young man to their home one evening that they felt would be a good fit for her. They were brought upstairs to engage in a centuries-old tradition known as bundling. This is a practice where the unmarried couple lies next to each other and spends the evening talking to get to know each other.

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It is not of a sexual nature but is a way to bond on a mental level and get to know each other on a deeper level before marriage. Hopes, dreams, and fears can be discussed in what is supposed to be a safe space for all, but that’s not how Emma felt.

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While no physical interaction is allowed and it is a long-held tradition in conservative Amish communities, the entire experience horrified Emma. The idea of an arranged marriage and falling in love with someone in this way seemed very wrong to her.

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She couldn’t believe that this was her fate and the whole idea of being bound to someone she did not love was possibly the straw that broke the camel’s back.

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Traditionally, Amish courtship begins between the ages of fourteen and sixteen and is considered a profoundly serious matter. It holds somewhat of a religious connotation and is usually more sped up than courtship in the secular world.

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Family life is of the utmost importance within the Amish community and any dating is considered only with marriage in mind. The dating of outsiders is forbidden, and a person could be shunned for doing so.

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The practice of bundling, as Emma experienced, is now only practiced by the most conservative of Amish communities. Having its roots in the European past when homes were especially cold in the winter.

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This tradition is seen by many as outdated in modern times but it was originally used out of necessity. Today, many progressives now condemn the practice that frightened Gingerich that night.

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Emma came to a realization – she wanted the freedom to choose her own life and she desired to further her education. Emma wanted more for herself than she was finding in Eagleville with her family. Gingerich wanted the lifestyle that existed outside of her traditional Amish life.

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Emma decided to put herself first and although it was scary she knew she couldn’t keep living a lie. She needed to find her truth and her identity beyond the Amish way of life she was accustomed to.

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Gingerich no longer agreed with the Amish traditions and lifestyle that she had known her whole life. The weight of it all threatened to crush her – she had to do something.

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Emma shared this revelation with a close family friend who resolved to help her change her life forever.

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The Exodus

The friend Gingerich confided in was able to sneak her the phone number of a woman, an ex-Amish woman, who could help her escape from her community. Instead of going against her friend, luckily she supported her idea.

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Another fellow rebel teenager slipped her a cell phone which Emma hung onto, hiding it in her room, to use at the right moment.

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Her parents were becoming suspicious of her behavior and feelings towards their lifestyle. There was no way she would be able to escape if they were home. At last, they left the home, and she seized the opportunity to begin leaving her restricted life behind.

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It was difficult going against her parents but in this instance, it felt like a necessity and the right thing to do. She in no way hated her parents but at the same time, she couldn’t keep disappointing herself.

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In January 2006, when she was eighteen, Emma called the phone number of the woman who had also fled the Amish life. It was the first phone call Gingerich made – ever.

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She did not know who would pick up the call, or if anyone would. She did not know what awaited her in the world outside of her strict upbringing, but she did know that it was time to leave.

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The woman who answered the call instructed Emma to walk four miles to the next small town where someone would pick her up. Leaving with nothing but the phone number and the clothes she was wearing.

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Gingerich summoned every ounce of courage she had and walked out the door of the only world she had ever known. She didn’t know if she would ever be back or see the people she grew up with ever again but in the same breath, she knew it needed to be done.

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In the Amish tradition, there is something known as the “rumspringa” or “teenage break” where teens experience life outside of the community. It is an opportunity to engage in rebellious behavior where enforcement norms are relaxed.

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It is important to note that not all Amish communities have the practice of rumspringa. Gingerich’s community did not. If anyone else knew what Emma was about to do they would have undoubtedly tried to stop it, especially her parents.

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Before she left, Emma left her parents a note stating: “The time has come for me to leave, I am not happy here anymore. I am sorry to do this to you but I need to try a different life.” With that note, Gingerich left her Amish life behind.

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She left barely speaking English and began a four-mile trek toward the unknown. She did not leave without fears, she hoped that she could manage to communicate despite the obstacles. Making this huge decision did not come without reservations and hesitations but ultimately she knew staying was worse than leaving.

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When she reached the small town, Gingerich was picked up by the kind woman with whom she had spoken on the phone. The woman took Gingerich in for two weeks as she began to adjust to her new life outside of the community.

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Emma was free and now her new life could begin. She was forever thankful to the woman who helped her, but now that she managed to escape it was only the first of many obstacles.

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A New Life

Before her exodus, the only interaction Gingerich had with the outside world had been extremely limited. Aside from the occasional trip to the grocery store, she had little to no knowledge of what to expect.

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Once she escaped she had no idea what was next or what awaited her, but she quickly found just what this new chapter had to offer – and what new opportunities she was missing out on until now.

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Initially, Gingerich struggled with the unexpected culture shock of leaving her Amish world. She began to learn English and attended school.

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Emma learned for the first time that a president ran the United States. This is just one example of how secluded her life before had been. Basic things that most people grow up knowing and are second nature to the average American were completely new to Emma.

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Upon leaving her community, Emma had to obtain a social security number and a birth certificate – two items that most Americans take for granted. These two items, once Gingerich attained them, opened the door for the education she previously only dreamt about.

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The reason that Amish people don’t obtain these types of documents is that they are completely secluded from the rest of society and are entirely self-sufficient. For this reason, they do not need benefits from the state and do not seek out documents provided by the state.

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Emma settled in Texas where she went from cooking for sixteen to cooking just for herself. She pursued her general education development certificate and went on to obtain her college degree as well as her MBA.

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Gingerich found a full-time job, and an apartment, and obtained her driver’s license. She uses technology and takes advantage of all that is available to her in her new-found life.

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Gingerich found the freedom of getting to make her own choices in life. She could now drive her own car, whereas prior to leaving her Amish community she was forced to use public transportation for any travel needs.

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The elders could vote to shun someone if they did not follow the rules and she was shamed by her father for asking questions. She lived in a community where her voice was not heard and her curiosity was silenced.

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One of the greatest freedoms Emma discovered was the ability to date whomever she selected. In the Amish tradition, the age of eighteen is generally when people are baptized into the Amish church, and they promise to follow the Ordnung – and that means getting married soon after.

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Going from an arranged marriage culture to being able to do as she pleased was quite shocking at first, but it did not deter Emma from bracing this new world.

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Once leaving her community, it took Gingerich several years to feel comfortable with the modern “English” way of dating. The freedom to choose who to date and when was a new experience for Emma.

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The pressure of having to find a spouse and settle down in the Amish tradition was lifted and Gingerich was free to proceed as she saw fit.

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In an ironic twist, the use of technology eventually brought Emma and her husband Clay together. The pair met on the Bumble app; a dating app meant to bring people together in meaningful relationships.

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Had Gingerich stayed much longer in her Amish community, she would have been married to someone selected for her and she would have had no chance to escape. Through her new life she should finally give her heart to whomever she wished.

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Now in her late thirties living with her husband and young daughter, Emma had no regrets about the choice she made to leave the Amish world. Her entire outlook and lease on life have changed.

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The new life she found and created for herself is nothing short of amazing, but it was not without a few side effects.

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Exodus Effects

Gingerich’s new life was not easy despite making the break from the culture that she felt trapped by. Initially, Emma experienced depression and a struggle with extreme shyness – especially when it came to speaking English and interacting with others.

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As she continued to live in the Amish community her mental health diminished little by little and her motivation for life swindled. Once she escaped the environment that was causing her suffering she suddenly blossomed and found a new purpose for life.

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Despite her desire to leave Eagleville and the Amish lifestyle behind, Gingerich was very homesick. She still loved her family and being separated from them was gut-wrenching. To combat this, she began to put her stories to paper in 2009 to help cope with her feelings.

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She wanted her story to be heard and it was a way to connect with the family she loved despite not loving the community and lifestyle that was chosen for her.

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Gingerich’s book, Runaway Amish Girl: The Great Escape, was published in 2014 and is a testament to her bravery in seeking a different life.

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Her book detailed her life in Eagleville, her disagreement with Amish traditions, and the emotional impact her departure had on her family. There are always two sides to every coin and just like it was difficult for Emma to leave, it was also difficult for her family to have her gone.

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The release of Gingerich’s book made waves immediately. The initial backlash in her former community came almost immediately as letters began to arrive attacking her faith and belief in God. At one point, she was not allowed to visit her family unless she became Amish again.

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This was quite challenging as she loved her family but didn’t want to be forced into the traditions and lifestyle that didn’t fit her beliefs and desires for the rest of her life.

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Her testimony about life in the Amish world cast a stark light on a community that few outsiders ever hear about. She is quoted as saying being Amish is like getting two feet of snow in the wintertime, “It looks very pretty when you are in your warm house looking out at it, but if you really need to go out in it, it’s not so pretty anymore.”

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Emma seemed to capture the struggles of Amish life and the turmoil she faced so poetically that many people from the outside world became fascinated with her story and perseverance.

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The positive response from readers of her book was overwhelming. As soon as the book was released, positive feedback flooded into Gingerich, far outpacing any negative pushback she received.

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Messages arrived every day from grateful readers expressing their thanks and how much Emma inspired them. She was also an inspiration to others who shared similar stories of leaving the Amish community.

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Gingerich has become a beacon of hope for Amish girls across the nation who desire to do as she did – to leave the Amish world behind. She has made it her mission to encourage them and give them advice as well as be there to help them should they choose to leave their communities.

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She began offering talks, advice, and support to others who faced the same challenges and believed that there is strength in coming together to face such obstacles of integrating into the secular world.

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In addition to answering private messages from would-be ex-Amish, Gingerich began to share her story publicly at local churches and other community programs. Through her speeches, she continued to bring hope and encouragement to others.

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She began writing stories in 2009 to help her cope with all the changes in her life and the homesickness she encountered. Besides that, it also helped her answer questions from people who were very curious about Amish life.

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While the initial backlash from her family was strong and fierce, Gingerich desired to repair her relationship with her family if she could. When she first began to make visits to Eagleville, she was shunned by the community at first.

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She hoped that one day they would accept her as she is and without judgement.

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The practice of shunning in the Amish community is often misunderstood by the outside world. It is commonly believed that once a person is shunned, they are cut off from their family for the rest of their lives with zero contact with them.

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This is typically not the case but in practice is much more nuanced than that. It isn’t as clear-cut as it is made out to be.

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Each community dictates how strict the shunning rules are for people who leave, ranging from not being able to eat with one’s family at the same table to being barred from attending a funeral when a family member dies.

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At first, Gingerich’s family did not welcome her back. Even more painful, her father expressed that he had not forgiven her for leaving. Emma was devastated and struggled to come to terms with her family’s disappointment and lack of acceptance.

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Eventually, Emma and her family’s relationship stabilized though it remains guarded. Gingerich’s parents, while happy for her now, remain restrained in expressing it as they do not want to encourage others to leave.

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Since Emma’s exodus, more Amish have left their communities – entire families at times. It seems as though there is somewhat of a shifting point within the communities as more young people become open to the outside world.

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Are these departures due to Gingerich’s example? Perhaps but one thing is certain – Emma Gingerich paved the way bravely where few Amish women had dared to go before her.

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Because of her courage, more now take the leap of faith to find a new life for themselves. Those struggling within the community now know that there is always someone to turn to. These voices don’t go left unheard but it is important to know when and how to ask and seek the right forms of help.

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A Different Way of Life

The traditions and culture of the Amish are a story that is older than America itself. It is a community based on close family ties, hard work, self-sufficiency, and resistance toward modern technology.

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While many Amish communities continue their traditions, some dream of a new way of life – at the risk of losing everything and everyone they know. Emma Gingerich, the eighteen-year-old Amish runaway, is one such individual.

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Emma has forged a completely new path for herself despite the enormous risk.

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Now she helps guide others who seek to do the same solace, Gingerich’s courage and determination deserves recognition and praise.

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The road to freedom was not an easy one. It was fraught with unexpected obstacles, familial collateral damage, and an experience that amounted to time traveling over a century’s worth of time as far as technology was concerned for Gingerich.

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Despite the struggles, Emma made her way through it all and into the life she was seeking. Since leaving she has gotten married and even has her own daughter. She plans to teach her daughter where she comes from but does not desire her to have any of the elements of an Amish lifestyle.

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In many ways, Gingerich still embodies the self-sufficiency and humility that have come to be synonymous with the Amish community but at the same time, she revealed a side of their traditions that the outside world was unaware of.

Emma right before she left the Amish Community Source: emma gingerich

Regardless of what drove Gingerich to leave, she still holds the values of the Amish lifestyle close – hard work and self-reliance.

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Now the question remains – is the tide turning for conservative Amish communities such as the one found in Eagleville, Missouri? Will people continue to leave for a new life? Gingerich seems to think so but only time will tell.

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For Emma, all that matters now is that she loves her new life and desires to give her daughter every freedom and opportunity she was denied as a child living in a “Swartzentruber Amish” community.

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