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How “guest” became a healing word for me

I was a guest from April 2006-November 2007. Being a guest altered the course of my life and steered my path towards getting my GED during my time at the Boston program and graduating cum laude from college with a bachelor’s degree when I returned home. I came back to volunteer for a summer five years after leaving. It was like nothing had ever changed though there were plentiful fresh faces. The Gould Farm community evolves yet stays recognizable due to its core values like calling residents "guests" and including them as active community members.

A photo of the Gould Farm community.

What image comes to mind when you think of the word “guest”? Maybe someone important, someone special, or someone visiting? The first thing I found curious about upon my arrival at Gould Farm was the title I was given: guest. I thought to myself, “What an unusual place I have landed! A place where my mental health diagnosis makes me a guest? How silly and strange!”

At Gould Farm, the word guest is reserved for a resident or person receiving care. To my dismay, I realized I now had a new title. And “guest” would be the term used throughout my entire stay to describe my place in the community and I would learn to call others like me guest.

"In the year I spent at Gould farm and the 7 months spent at their extended program in Boston, I would learn what it meant to be a guest at the 100-plus-year-old therapeutic community in the beautiful Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts."

At first, there was much confusion over who was who of the 90 or so people who call Gould Farm home; moreover, who is staff, a staff family member, a volunteer, and who is a guest. I became initially a bit overwhelmed having to differentiate who is who as a newcomer to Gould Farm’s community. Little did I know this is Gould Farm’s intention: integrate the guest with the staff member, or family living on site, or volunteer, to reach an all-inclusive community. I wish I would have seen this beauty at first - this blurring of the community member’s roles - but by the time I left it was ingrained in me that I was part of a community just like everyone else. It didn’t matter that I was a guest and someone else was staff it’s what we were working together for. In retrospect, I think of those first days when I knew few people, and what a colorful community was at my fingertips where I had an important role too - just unknown to me.

Eating together has a long history of embodying life in a community setting and Gould Farm sticks to this community ideal. Nowadays, meals are buffet style however during my stay, they were occasionally family style. In the late afternoon, napkin rings with name tags attached to them were carefully placed at assigned seats in the dining room. In the past, this was done by a Gould Farm notable who lived on the Farm until she was quite elderly. Everyone in the community had a napkin ring and always received a new place to sit during family-style meals.

The Farm has a set of weekly meetings as check-in points with the community. These take place in the homes where guests live, during breakfast, and with a weekly community meeting. These are like the oil and gears of the community “machine”. This gives the guest time to bring up issues within the community and more importantly appreciate those in the community. This is where a stuffed animal named George comes in. George gets passed weekly through the community to show a sizeable appreciation to an individual who then keeps him for a week and gives him away the following week to another deserving member.

Changing how I was addressed did matter and, it changed what I thought of myself. When I thought of myself as a guest at Gould Farm it stripped away an ugly diagnosis and pieces that weren’t me and were never me. They were labels simply put upon me. I was free to simply enjoy my time at the farm without seeming like I didn’t belong. Guest became a healing word for me. It also reminded me my stay was temporary. Being a guest equalized the playing field and elevated the title of those like me that needed a lift in dignity. I felt respected.

No one at the Farm ever talked down to me because I was a guest or devalued my opinion because I was a guest alone. I always felt like an equal member of a community. I remember speaking to guests about other guests and it was revolutionary how ingrained this term is by everyone on the farm alike. If we were “patients” I’m convinced the Farm would have an entirely different feel and it wouldn’t be adding dignity to my name. It would put me in an inferior position and back in a box I’d been stuck in too long.

"Gould Farm changed my life and it changed how I viewed myself. It made me see the role I played in a community. It equalized what I had to give."

I wasn’t just receiving services. There was give and take. The work programs allowed me to contribute to the community by cooking and baking in the kitchen and working with the public at Roadside Cafe. At the end of the day, I learned words matter. What I called myself mattered. In a world where you can be anything, “guest” is an affirming title to hear.

You can find Elizabeth on Instagram at @wordsholdhope where she posts encouraging content as a “22-year survivor of bipolar, depression, and anxiety.”



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