Empowerment through meaningful work on the road to recovery

group work in the woodshop

By Amy Bowen, Work Program Director

When I was applying for my current position as Spring Lake Ranch’s Work Program Director, the mission statement really drew me in — especially the part about helping people develop the confidence and skills to recover through meaningful work in an accepting community.   

I spent the first month at Spring Lake Ranch doing a lot of listening to people as I asked them about what’s at the heart of the work program.   A handful of recurring themes emerged; one is this:  at its best, our work program provides empowerment. 

The nature of our work program is key in leading to the empowerment.  There are four main factors that stand out for me:

Providing What’s Needed

We focus on work that is needed and appreciated by the community.   We see the tangible value of feeding the pigs all winter when we enjoy their meat at a meal.  Our community feels and greatly appreciates the warmth from the effort spent to split wood when we all enjoy the crackling fire in the main house.  We can taste the benefit of carefully weeding and tending the garden when we sit down to a beautiful kale salad, made with kale planted in our hoop house just a few weeks prior.  The work we do is important and it means something to those in our community:  it provides food, warmth and shelter.

Opportunities To Face Challenges

We offer challenges with support.  The challenges of meaningful work can be powerful in facilitating change in a person’s self-efficacy (Strong,1997).  Self-efficacy is our belief in that we have the power to make an impact.  Albert Bandura, who researched what builds a person’s self-efficacy, pointed out:

The most effective way of creating a strong sense of efficacy is through mastery experiences. Successes build a robust belief in one’s personal efficacy…If people experience only easy successes they come to expect quick results and are easily discouraged by failure. A resilient sense of efficacy requires experience in overcoming obstacles through perseverant effort.

The work on our Crews offers a space to experience success by overcoming obstacles within a supportive group.

A recent afternoon on Work Crew provided two opportunities to face challenges.  The afternoon began with multiple Crews coming together to help move cows from our lower pastures to graze in the pastures at the top of our property.  This challenge involved many people running in front of and alongside the cows to keep them on track, with different Crews collaborating and the rest of the community standing outside to watch. It was hard work, and new for most, but the cows eventually moved locations without a hitch.

brown cow and baby calf in grassy field

After spending a brief moment watching the calves and their moms munch on mouthfuls of their lush new pasture, I set off with Woods Crew.  We made our way up to the woods where a small group of us hauled out ash logs to be milled for Shop Crew. Shop will use these to create more of the beautiful, new chairs they’ve been building for our dining hall.  At the end of the day, these challenges had tired me out, but I felt great.  Together we had experienced successes with difficult tasks; according to Bandura, this increases belief in our ability to have future success.

Building Skills

We help build skills and competency.  It’s amazing to see someone’s wood-splitting skills increase after a couple weeks spent on Woods Crew.  We don’t expect our residents to be future foresters, but building competency to reach our group goals is powerful.  Research points to the connection between building the skills necessary for a task and building confidence (Mee, Sumsion & Craik, 204).

Creative Problem Solving

Our work program offers also opportunity for problem solvingThe nature of our work offers frequent need for creative solutions.  We work hard to create a space where people feel okay to step out and try out an idea, knowing it might be the first idea or it might be the tenth idea that works.  An example: although I came in at the end of the process, it’s my understanding that it took a group of committed residents several weeks to finalize the design of our new dining room chairs.   There were many ideas that were tried and scratched, or built upon, to produce our beautiful, final product.

Final Thoughts

As our program offers meaningful work experience, we build on and put into practice things our residents are working on with our clinicians.  This action, specifically routed in these four areas, builds empowerment and skills to face life’s future challenges – whatever they may be.

CARF Accredited: Spring Lake Ranch programs are CARF accredited. The CARF accreditation signals our commitment to continually improving services, encouraging feedback, and serving the community.

Spring Lake Ranch is a member of the American Residential Treatment Association (ARTA). ARTA members are dedicated to providing extraordinary care to adults with mental illness.