Professional Sabbatical Volunteer
Will Britt, PhD
I first heard about Gould Farm from a close friend who volunteered there several years ago. After a writing fellowship at the Austen Riggs Center researching psychosis, I was looking for a way to stay in western Massachusetts and engage directly with folks struggling with psychosis (not just with clinicians). I was also looking for a chance to do physical labor in the beauty of the Berkshires. Gould Farm seemed to meet all of those desires.
As it happened, I did not get the teaching job I had thought I would be starting after my initial 6-month period, and the pandemic hit about a month into my volunteering stint. I found the Farm to be an excellent place to weather that storm, offering meaningful work while in a community. So I both committed myself to more time spent doing volunteer stuff (and less in the academic world) and asked to stay for an additional several months. I ended up being at Gould Farm for just over 11 months all told.
I found my volunteer stint immersive and beautiful. It was immersive in part because I’m an immersive person, preferring to jump all the way into whatever I’m doing, partly because of the pandemic, and partly because the strength of the Farm is its community. So immersion is both encouraged and rewarding.
The beautiful setting of the Farm refreshes the soul and challenges the body–maybe it aids the soul in part by challenging the body. But the beauty of even a year-long stay is found more deeply in the relationships with other staff and with guests, especially in seeing genuine change and growth among both groups.
I was impressed by the creativity, resilience, kindness, and persistence of guests, and I was greatly moved by the intelligence, care, and investment of staff and volunteers.
Part of what I learned about myself in the course of volunteering was how much I missed teaching. About 8 months into my volunteer stint, I accepted an offer for a new adventure the following year: teaching Philosophy on the other side of the world, in Papua New Guinea. As much as I loved the recovery work and the people of the Farm, and as much as I knew I would miss the gorgeous setting and the manual labor, I wanted to be able to teach academic material again.
I think that some of my confidence for taking on such a new challenge came from the experience of plunging into a very new context and project at the Farm and finding myself supported and able to swim.
A major difficulty of moving on was leaving those with whom I had built close friendships, especially in the intensity of the pandemic atmosphere–it felt a little like we had been to war together. Some of those folks were fellow volunteers who would be leaving within a year or so, anyway, but others were longer-term staff whom I could reasonably hope to continue working with, had I chosen to extend my volunteer period further.