Farm Therapy at Vermont’s Spring Lake Ranch

“The highest reward for a person’s toil is not what they get for it, but what they become by it.” – John Ruskin

In the center of Vermont, high in the mountains just a few miles north of the tip of the Green Mountain National Forest, sits a beautiful spring-fed lake. It is not reachable by road and has thus remained rustic and primitive, even by Vermont standards. It does, however, sit right along the Appalachian Trail.

An early photo of Elizabeth and Wayne Sercka with “the boys”

An early photo of Elizabeth and Wayne Sercka with “the boys”

So it was that Wayne and Elizabeth Sarka discovered it. Wayne was from a large Vermont family and had worked during and after World War One with shell-shocked soldiers. Elizabeth was from a prominent Manhattan family and had experience with charitable and non-profit work. They married in the late 1920s and honeymooned by hiking the Long Trail in Vermont.

‘’We … completely lost our hearts to the area,” wrote Elizabeth later. “The land was going for a song, so we bought a stretch of it with the idea of having a summer place.’’ That was in 1932, at the bottom of the depression. That first summer the couple brought boys up from the settlement house they were working with in Manhattan to help clear land, build roads and repair buildings. Afternoons they left for recreational activities.

During the third summer of this work-play camp, the son of a prominent New York psychiatrist, Dr. Bernard Glueck, and one of Dr. Glueck’s patients joined the group. Amazed by the leadership growth of his boy and the progress of his patient over the summer, the doctor urged the Sarckas to pioneer the first halfway house for the mentally ill in the United States.

The couple agreed. The ranch started to grow, the Sarckas hired people to help them, built houses for the staff, and it has been evolving ever since. It has mostly focused on people with mental illness, but for a time there was a focus on people with alcohol problems.

The work program has always been the central strength of the program. The whole idea is getting people out of their heads and into their bodies, and regaining a sense of self and purpose by being asked to make a contribution to the community through work.

Members of the garden crew, Allyson, crew chief Lisa, Melissa and Benjamin show off the garlic they have raised at the ranch.

Members of the garden crew, Allyson, crew chief Lisa, Melissa and Benjamin
show off the garlic they have raised at the ranch.

When they arrive, residents are given a choice to be on the garden crew, which works with vegetables and flowers, the farm crew, which works with livestock, hay and pasture, the woods crew which cuts and splits wood and directs the sugaring operations, or the shop crew which builds and repairs furniture, structures, etc.

According to the ranch, the work program allows individuals to take appropriate risks, become leaders and work together as members of a group. They believe that self-esteem and confidence grow out of concrete accomplishment and individual contribution, and that work creates the opportunity to develop reciprocal relationships based on trust and respect. The work program provides a constructive metaphor for life by helping to shift an individual’s thinking away from symptoms toward a positive focus. Working in the woods, interacting with animals, growing one’s own food, building, repairing and creating, all establish connections to people and systems beyond one’s self.

According to Alice McGarey-Martin, Outreach Director at the Ranch, most residents come from an environment where they have been hospitalized for psychiatric treatment. But some come from home. Social workers at hospitals or treatment programs are aware of Spring Lake and it’s program already. Families find the ranch through the web.

“For the last 10 to 15 years,” says Alice, “most of our residents have been in their late teens to early thirties. Before that, they were slightly older. But diagnosis of mental illness is happening at a younger and younger age. The typical time in a person’s life when it begins is when they are reaching adulthood and transitioning out of the family home – often on leaving for college. What happens is the stress of that, combined with a predisposition that has been there a long time, tips them over into symptoms that are more serious. They end up back at home for a period of time and get quickly stuck because they become very isolated from their peers.”

There are more men than women as residents, and a mixture of psychosis and mood disorder is the most common diagnosis affecting residents. Examples of mood disorder are bipolar disease or depression with some psychotic thinking – which is a failure to recognize reality.

Many of the residents have some sort of personality disorder as well. Lisa Gardner, the staffer who serves as Crew Head for the Garden program, explains: “Our old boss here went on to work with people who have developmental disabilities – things like autism and Down’s syndrome – who maybe couldn’t do as complex things as some of the people here can, but they are far more reliable and easy to work with than someone with a personality disorder. People with personality disorders often don’t know who they are and try to fill that void with substances – drugs or alcohol – or with sex, by manipulating others, by self injury. Their personality didn’t really get to form and they can’t function well in the world or with others.

photo by Jack Kittredge

Frank, a resident, enjoys helping rebuild the roof of the recycling shed. photo by Jack Kittredge

“There are some pretty serious things going on for residents,” she continues. “Suppose you were trying to get up and go to work but heard voices? Could you concentrate on getting to work? I don’t mean the internal voice most of us have, but one you really think you hear from outside. Or several different ones!”

The ranch is comprised of 600 acres on a mountainside, most of it being woods. The recommended length of stay is 6 months. When a resident arrives he or she is assigned three staff people: first a house advisor, who is really a mentor or guide to give good advice, and second a team leader to support them and push them when they need pushing and to create consequences when their behavior is disruptive. The third staff is one of the clinical team leaders. They are involved with all the residents and help the staff guide and lead people.

“A lot of people who come here,” Lisa explains, “have been kind of isolated. So part of the program is to help them develop relationships. Our psychiatrist describes our program as being ‘relentlessly social’. Being in a community and being on crew we eat together, work together, play together. It really gives an opportunity to form relationships. That’s a really important part of being a human being!

“Motivating people,” Lisa continues, “is a lot of what the staff does. A lot of people here have failed in the past. So they might appear lazy, but a lot of that is trying to protect themselves from failing again. Pushing yourself to do something that you are worried may not turn out well is hard. Especially when you are pushing through depression, the side effects of medication, the symptoms of your illness.“

Although the residents are all 18 years old or older, there are rules about what they can and cannot do. Residents can’t drive vehicles, for instance, but can run some equipment, depending on what it is. Smoking, while frowned on, is allowed in a special “smoking gazebo” — many staff believe there is a definite connection between smoking and mental illness. Some houses are co-ed and although romances between residents aren’t allowed, they can’t be totally prevented.

If a resident’s behavior is sufficiently disruptive, they might be grounded for a weekend and not get to go on a trip with everyone.

“That’s not ideal. These are adults,” admits Lisa. “The most meaningful consequences are when people understand how their own actions affect the community and their own personal growth. But some people are a little immature to get all that, and need something outside themselves to motivate them.“

At any one time Spring Lake Ranch can accommodate about 30 residents, and employs about an equal number of staff, from groundskeepers to highly trained psychiatric workers. When residents complete the program at the ranch they have an option to move to Rutland, a few miles away, where they can get jobs and apartments. The Ranch still maintains case managers and some staff there, but the residents have far more independence.

At the ranch residents work 5 hours a day during the week with their work crew, from 9:30 to 12 in the morning, and 1:30 to 4:00 in the afternoon. During the middle is lunch. At other times there are meetings and entertainment taking place.

Each crew has a department head or crew chief and three staff who work with it as well as living with the residents as house advisors. Then some of the crews have interns, as well. On the weekends the house advisors do chores as well as help with recreation.

Angie Craig heads the farm crew, which takes care of the livestock at the ranch. She has been there a little over a year and a half and previously worked at Gould’s Farm, a similar operation in Monterey, Massachusetts.

“Our teams usually average around 8 residents,” she says. “With advisors who also work on a crew they could be as large as 11 or 12. Every Wednesday residents get to fill out a ballot where they list their first, second, and third choice of work. So they can switch crews every week. Most people stay where they are so maybe there will be one new person per crew each week.”

Many of the residents make connections in this process with the work — they want to be around animals or they really enjoy the garden — or with the leader or some member of the crew. Making those connections, and building upon them, is fundamental to the therapy at Spring Lake Ranch.

The garden crew uses largely organic seed and practices rotations and making compost. Their market is the ranch kitchen, which serves 60 diners a day.

“We set aside part of the garden area for people to have their own plots,” relates Lisa. “Sometimes people who like to create order will find weeding very therapeutic. We had one young woman who never planted anything in her plot, just weeded it!

A few specialty items produced at the ranch like maple syrup, pesto, granola and yarn are sold at the farmers market in Rutland, and the proceeds donated to the scholarship fund. The garden crew also makes food for ranch events like a fundraiser to be held the day after my visit.

I spoke with one of the crew, an intern named Ollie who had been a resident, moved to the Rutland program, and then applied back to the ranch for one of a few internships available there.

They had an opportunity here to come and be an intern,” Ollie says, “and work for a wage. When I came back I chose the garden program because I have a degree in horticulture and I’ve done a fair amount of apprenticeships at other farms. I have bipolar disorder. I was going to be a farmer and used to go to all the NOFA Summer Conferences. But it was hard to hold a job because of irritability issues. Also I’d have grandiose moments when I thought I was a Prophet of God. That’s not very conducive to taking orders from an employer (laughs). I had struggled with it without knowing what was going on for a long time. When I finally figured it out my mom and her partner wanted to help me deal with it. So I came here and I really think it helped. I was mostly on woods crew when I was here. I did gardens for a fair amount of time, but I really liked splitting wood! But that was in the winter, so there’s not much gardening going on anyway.

“Once I discovered I had bipolar disorder,” he continues, “they prescribed me mood stabilization medications. Once you start medications, it takes a while for your brain to heal – to get your cognitive abilities back in check. I think why Spring Lake Ranch is so great is that the work keeps you in a structured environment, whereas in group focused programs you’re in group for three hours a day and the rest of the time you aren’t doing anything. But here you have five hours a day when you are working and seeing the results of that in your products. I think the way your brain heals in this kind of environment, because you are doing simple physical activities, is more basic. I think that is more conducive to healing than sitting and passively receiving something in a group setting. I expect to be on medications the rest of my life. But they are adjusting them and instead of being on two I think I’ll be on one. I will be on medications the rest of my life, though, if I want to live a normal life. Of course, if I want to be a Prophet of God again (laughs)…”

Lisa thinks the intern program is one of the best things about Spring Lake Ranch. Only a few residents come back to intern – maybe one per crew — but other residents are able to see someone like Ollie doing well and that serves as a real inspiration.

As one might expect, the farm livestock is a major attraction at Spring Lake. With 45 acres of pasture available, grazing animals are a natural focus. The ranch needs about 12 cows a year to provide enough beef for the kitchen, so Angie is building up the herd to make that possible. They have a Beefalo cross bull and the cows are Herefords, Black Angus crosses, Belted Galloway crosses, and a British White.

Spring Lake Ranch currently does not have a dairy program. I asked why, given their use of a lot of dairy products, that it was Angie’s specialty at the University of Vermont, and the potential therapeutic value of hand milking.

“To go into dairy,” Angie responded thoughtfully, “would cost a lot for start up — for the animals, the equipment, etc. Then we have to be careful because dairy cows put you on a schedule every 12 hours that isn’t during normal working hours for the crew. So staff might end up doing a lot of the work, which isn’t the purpose. People with mental illness can be very unreliable. But I might propose one or two cows, which we could milk by hand, and see how it goes. “

The ranch also features a flock of 10 ewes, some kids and a ram. While I was there residents were erecting a strong permanent fence for their pasture. Despite being surrounded by wilderness and forest, the ranch has not experienced many problems with coyotes or other predators.

The sheep are there for their wool, not their meat, says Angie: “Many residents don‘t want to eat the lambs because they’re cute.“

Livestock cuteness, however, is shared by the lambs with a small flock of pygmy goats that the residents simply love and can’t get enough of!

Hay-making is a special time, as on many farms, when everything stops and all hands help to bring it in and stack it. The crew still makes square bales there, so individuals can manage them by hand.

The ranch also has grain-fed livestock – chickens, turkeys and pigs. They don’t buy organic grain because of the price, but supplement the animals’ diets with food residues, cider mash, etc.

The 75 chickens are all layers and production averages 30 to 35 eggs a day, which go to the kitchen. With the number of mouths the ranch has to feed, chickens for meat are unwieldy, Angie says. That purpose is filled better by turkeys. Currently they are raising 17 broad-breasted bronze that will be quite large by Thanksgiving – which is a festive occasion at Spring Lake with many families coming to be together for the day. All the birds not eaten then will be frozen for meals the rest of the year.

Currently the ranch raises a half dozen or so pigs a year, buying them in the spring for fall slaughter. But Angie is thinking about keeping a sow and starting their own breeding program.

Similar in importance to haymaking in the summer, sugaring in the late winter trumps everything else. They eat a lot, sell a lot, and have a mail order syrup business. Last year they made over 400 half gallons, and some years have come close to 600. The woods crew organizes the sugaring, but everyone works and takes shifts at boiling. Spring Lake has some collection lines, but most of the sap is collected in buckets at the tree. As with so many other activities at the ranch, this is partly to keep it so that there are lots of jobs involved and all the residents can help.

All the furniture at Spring Lake – dining room chairs, beds and desks in the houses – is made by teams in the shop. The facility is equipped with a number of woodworking hand and power tools, as well as some for making metal parts. When I visited they were busy making toy lions with moveable legs to auction at the upcoming fundraiser.

One of the women in the shop, Tricia, has had considerable experience with Spring Lake Ranch: She was a resident about 6 years ago, then moved to the Rutland after-care program and was a client there. Last December she became an intern with the shop crew, and now is in a staff role. She wanted to get more familiar with the different machines in the shop because she has become interested in woodworking and will be starting an apprenticeship at a boat building program starting in September.

“I was here initially for depression,” she recounts. “It was very helpful to be here. I had been through 20 years of all different kinds of medications that I had tried. They didn’t work, I had been hospitalized 3 or 4 times, I had tried electro convulsive therapy – electro-shock therapy. I had 2 courses of that. Nothing was working. I got to the point where I pretty much didn’t leave the house for about a year.

“I found Spring Lake Ranch on the internet,” she continues. “I was looking for a work-oriented type of program. When you stop working your self esteem goes down and you become discouraged about ever working again. I was looking for a place where I could do the work but in an atmosphere where people might be conscious of the fact that I might be struggling. It was very helpful to be here.”

Tricia was particularly attracted to Spring Lake Ranch because it had the Rutland after-care program. When she had been in a hospital, she said, things would improve. But then she would go back into life and things would return to where they had been. The hospital would remove some of the stresses of life, but she didn’t learn the skills she needed for self-care.

“It didn’t give me the tools,” she recalls, “to work through the issues that I needed to work through. Part of that, of course, was that I wasn’t ready. Here is such a nice place, compared to a hospital. I can be outside, I can be productive, and I can deal with my issues.

“I will always have to take medications,” she says. “I believe there is a component to depression that is biological. My grandmother and my grandfather had depression. There is also alcoholism through my family. So there is a biological component. But I think there is an environmental one as well. You need to learn the skills to manage your particular issues!”

One thing which makes the whole facility at Spring Lake so attractive, besides the carefully thought-out work and clinical therapies provided, is the simply natural beauty of the place. Well landscaped lawns and pathways, magnificent views, a stunning lake, and rustic wooden structures make it seem more like a resort than a therapeutic farm.

As Alice puts it: “The natural environment is a specific part of the healing process for a lot of people. They are in a beautiful place — away from home, where things might not be going so well.

Another comforting aspect of the environment is that some of the staff live on campus with their families.

“The head of our woods crew,” points out Lisa, “has his family here with him – he has two boys. They love it and it is a great addition to the atmosphere. It feels less like a treatment center with kids around, and it signals that this is a safe place if someone is raising an eight-year-old here.”

Recreation is also an important part of having a meaningful life, and therefore of the program at Spring Lake.

“A lot of our residents are addicts,” says Lisa, “and their recreation has been alcohol or drugs. They don’t necessarily know other ways to have fun. But having fun isn’t only about a good time – it is about creating relationships, getting your brain going, doing things which make you feel good about yourself. If you just focus on what you’re not doing as in “I’m not drinking now” then you’re not focusing on — now that you are more stable and have more time and money and health — what comes next. So we have activities on the weekends, things that are both around the ranch and in town, that people can take part in. It is not mandatory, but is definitely encouraged. People develop hobbies here that they take with them and use the rest of their lives.”

In the winter people do quilting and sewing and skiing, in the summer ball games and hiking. Cards are really popular, different sports come and go in different years. There is a tennis court, basketball court, and musical instruments hang in the main lodge. Spring Lake itself is beautiful, surrounded by woods, and residents skate on it and cut ice from it in some months, then canoe and swim in others. There are cross country and hiking trails on the land, and the ranch sponsors trips to downhill skiing areas nearby.

“One thing I’ve discovered here,” adds Lisa, “is that having fun is a lot harder than working. It may not be intuitive, but it is easier to get people to work than to play. Play is open ended. Work you kind of know what is expected of you, you can fulfill that but play is a lot trickier. So we’ll be playing softball here in this pasture this afternoon. We’ll do it for the last hour of work crew. And the softball game is mandatory. We call it ‘mandatory fun’! Not everyone has to play, but you have to come up and participate. Often that calls on things from people that are way complicated.

Naturally all this – a beautiful spot, room and board, plentiful staff, tractors, shop equipment, sap boilers, trained psychiatrists – isn’t cheap. The base fee residents pay is $350 a day. That is a lot of money, especially because it is a 6 month length of stay. That comes to almost $64,000.

Of course when you compare it to hospital treatment, which is $1500 a day, it is a lot more reasonable. Sometimes families have insurance that will help cover it, but mostly the fee is paid privately by famiies. The ranch itself raises money for a financial aid program, to which people can apply after their second month in residence. All the products that they sell (pesto, syrup, wool) support the scholarship program. The fund provides assistance for up to 40% of the fee for up to a year.

Over the last 82 years, since the Sarckas first initiated a work camp on the site, the ranch has evolved a lot. It has gotten bigger, better known, and the therapeutic world in which it works has gotten enormously more complicated with new disorders, new treatment modalities, new medications. There is more demand now for programs to have a serious clinical component. So Spring Lake now has three clinical staff members plus a psychiatric nurse and a psychiatrist.

Yet much has not changed since the beginning. The therapy still happens by empowering people through working and living together, and seeing the results of that in products and relationships, on a beautiful piece of land by cutting and working with wood, growing vegetables, and caring for animals.