In the 1970s, the Keller Family donated a 477-acre farm in Montague, NJ to Fountain House. For decades, hundreds of members have made the 70-mile trip on a weekly basis to enjoy the therapeutic experience of caring for animals, preserving wildlife (including the Golden-Winged Warbler – an endangered species!), planting and harvesting vegetables, and working together as stewards of nature.
Fountain House Farm plays an important role in the recovery of people with serious mental illness. The rural setting offers peaceful, natural surroundings and represents an ideal location to expand and enhance Fountain House’s award-winning wellness initiatives. Farm activities are designed to instill a sense of dignity, self-worth, and pride in doing good for oneself and for others – important prerequisites for healing and rehabilitation.
After visiting Fountain House Farm once a month for the past nine years, Chaitanya refers to herself as a “veteran”. She is frequently called upon to lead groups of members experiencing the farm for the first time. “Staff rely on veterans like me to go up and show people the ropes … and make sure things are done right.”
Not only has the extensive responsibility for farm projects given Chaitanya a confidence boost, but it has also helped her learn to navigate challenging interpersonal relationships. Growing up, Chaitanya was shy and withdrawn. “I suffered from social anxiety. I didn’t really like being around people. On the farm, I basically always know what to do and how to do it. I help members who are new to it. That makes me feel good.”
One of Chaitanya’s favorite things about the farm is the peaceful quiet of being out in the country. “The farm gives me a break from the city. I love the quiet. To me, it feels like home.”
Another thing she likes is the opportunity to see wild animals, including bears, a bobcat, and many beautiful birds. “I go year-round so each season is a different kind of experience.” Chaitanya enjoys caring for the animals, which include sheep, chickens, alpacas and llamas. Before discovering Fountain House Farm, she had no exposure to rural life. “I didn’t really have contact with animals like that. I hadn’t really gone to the country. I definitely feel like I’m in the country when I’m on the farm. I even love Country music, which they play a lot on the radio station there.”
Food produced at the farm and the meat chickens that Chaitanya cares for are transported to Fountain House’s culinary and wellness units, then used to prepare thousands of meals for members every year. “It’s cool knowing that I had something to do with the food we eat at Fountain House.”
After almost a decade as a Fountain House member, Chaitanya has made great strides in overcoming her social anxiety. She has developed deep friendships with other Fountain House members and accomplished goals such as obtaining part-time employment. Currently, she is scaling back the time she spends on the farm because she is looking for another job. “I know I can’t go Monday through Friday anymore, but I look forward to spending my weekends there.”
The confidence Chaitanya found on the farm has been transformative. She has taken a more active and visible role at Fountain House. “I work in the Welcome unit. I like to sit at the front door and greet people when they come in.”
Not a small feat for someone who once described herself as shy and withdrawn.