Distinguished Service Award: Donna and Wayne Burkhart

By Emily Wade Will | May 23rd, 2016



Wayne ’67 and Donna Beachy ’69 Burkhart were both just days out of graduate school when the couple spotted a Mennonite Weekly Review ad for a “Gardens and Grounds Work Leader.” Wayne’s advisor at Michigan State University told him it looked like a “dead-end job.”

Wayne still applied. Thirty-two years later, both he and Donna continue to find their work at Gould Farm amazingly life-affirming.

Nestled in Massachusetts’ scenic Berkshire hills, the 650-acre farm offered the couple not only jobs—Donna also joined the staff— but a vibrant community and callings as well. Gould Farm’s mission is to offer open hearts and doors to individuals “suffering in mind and spirit,” according to its 1913 charter written by Will and Agnes Gould. More than a century later, the residential therapeutic community remains on the cutting edge of psychiatric practice.

On any given day, some 40 guests reside at Gould Farm. Many have passed through an acute phase, often the onset, of severe depression, bipolar disorder, schizoaffective disorder, or schizophrenia. Stabilized with medication, they are ready to learn to manage their psychiatric disorder, but are also dealing with loss of self-worth and a firm sense of their place in the world.

The Burkharts are among approximately 50 staff members and their families who form the core of the ongoing community. Donna is director of client services, while Wayne is agricultural director. Staff includes both trained professionals and volunteers from around the world.

Therapy occurs in life’s daily events, Donna says, as people listen to one another while they pick greens to make a salad, bottle-feed a new calf, milk cows, tap sugar maples, or clean up after dinner. (Even the director washes dishes.) Guests participate in one of several work teams that care for animals, gardens, buildings and grounds. They also prepare farm-to-table meals and make cheese, yogurt, and baked goods that are enjoyed in the dining room or shared with neighbors at the Roadside Café or the Harvest Barn Bakery.

“People are not stepping out of life into treatment but practicing ways to sustain management of a vulnerability in a normative setting,” Donna says. “Everyone is giving as well as receiving.”

“When you’re working alongside someone who can hardly talk, and they’re now coming back into fellowship with life, that’s very satisfying,” says Wayne.

Both grew up in Mennonite communities, Wayne on a northern Michigan farm, and Donna in Delaware. They met at EMC, English majors, and then worked for four years with Mennonite Central Committee in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

When the Burkharts joined the Gould Farm community, they had no reason to believe mental illness would personally strike them. The oldest of their two sons, then 10, asked his parents whether he would get schizophrenia. They told him the possibility was low; it affects 1 percent of the population.

“We saw Christopher off to his first year at Boston College with a scholarship and indefatigable energy,” Donna wrote. He asked to come home months later, and the couple witnessed his “mounting disorganization, dysfunction and despair.”

At age 22, Christopher took his life. “I went to the farm and threw some bales to the cows and life was different,” Wayne later wrote. “He was driven to do it. It wasn’t a ‘good-bye cruel world’ gesture. It was ‘I’ve got to get rid of the rattle in my head.’”

The couples’ compassion for people coping with mental illness grew even deeper. As admissions director, Donna daily speaks with families coming to terms with a diagnosis.

“I have incredible reserves of understanding for what the families are going through. It’s not just one member experiencing the illness. It affects them all,” she says.

Wayne recalls an EMC Bible course on the book of Job with Professor G. Irvin Lehman that still guides his thinking: “The wondrous, deep miracle of life itself drowns out all our impatient questions. As humans, we don’t have the final truth.”