NEWTON, Kan. (August 10, 2017) – Mervin Bontrager’s career at Prairie View, Inc. recently concluded after 51 years as a licensed specialist clinical social worker.
After growing up on a dairy farm in western New York and earning a psychology degree from Eastern Mennonite College (now University) in Virginia, his first encounter with Prairie View was after he graduated college. He had the option of providing alternate service work in either Nova Scotia, Alberta, or Kansas, and he chose to complete his alternate service experience in Kansas as a psychiatric aide from 1962 to 1964.
Bontrager then traveled to earn his graduate degree at the University of Buffalo in Buffalo, N.Y., and later returned to Kansas in 1967. He was then in private practice for a period in the 1980s, and then started working on his doctorate degree in Chicago in the 1990s – although he completed his proposal and decided he didn’t want to write his dissertation.
“Even though I didn’t get my PhD, I became highly educated and earned good experience,” Bontrager said. “However, my best teachers weren’t in Chicago; they were the people that sit in those chairs [points to chairs in his office]. I’m very appreciative of the people who sat in those chairs and helped me in my journey.”
Mainly, he worked with patients who experienced depression, anxiety, marital and relationship issues – usually adults and some adolescents in his past years. He focused primarily on significant relationship issues, whether in a marriage or family.
“One of the things I enjoy doing is using metaphors in therapy and my own life,” Bontrager said. “I’ve come to appreciate and understand stories because they are a very important part of how we learn.”
“It took me 40 years to realize that we are on a journey in life and we experience various stages or stops in life that keep us longer in the wilderness,” he said. “But then to get to the promised land, somehow we have to slay and conquer our giants. They can keep us from experiencing the promised land.”
Bontrager uses this metaphor in therapy to help his patients look at their problems as giants.
“What keeps us from growing is our fear of our giants, and in order to slay them, we must identify them and replace them with positive things,” he said.
Outside of work, he enjoys other areas of creativity such as woodworking, gardening, and raising hogs and cattle.
Bontrager said he remembered moving from the Prairie View office on 29th and Rock Road in Wichita to the current office at 21st Street North and Webb Road, and noticed 15 to 20 blue chairs that were going to be thrown away. Being a woodworker, he couldn’t see them being destroyed.
“I thought about all the stories that were told in those chairs and how I helped clients develop new stories. I wanted to make use of the chairs,” he said. “So I built a table using the wood from those chairs.”
From those 15 to 20 chairs, Bontrager crafted a total of four tables. One was used in his office for clients to take their old stories and let them rest on the table, and go out to make new stories. (See picture attached)
He also wrote a story called “The Story Table” explaining details of the process of recreating the chairs into tables.
“It’s about taking stories and not throwing them away, which is what Prairie View is about,” Bontrager said. “We are here to not throw people away, but to make something out of their stories and find a new creation.”
Bontrager said he had learned remarkably throughout his journey at Prairie View.
“I describe myself as an evolutionary creationist; creation is evolving all the time,” he said. “Once we lose the inspiration to be creative, we lose life, which is what I’ve learned most. If we fail to create, we become fossilized, rigid, inflexible and dead.”
“I’ve also discovered the significance of relationships, and how powerful they are,” Bontrager said. “You can have a theoretical base, and practice the theoretical base, but if you don’t have relationships to establish them, I’m not sure of the value of therapy.”
A memory he shared was of a 65-year-old client who struggled with anger, resentment and depression, along with serious medical issues. The client came into the office quite angry, so Bontrager told him to go home and bake bread and work out the aggression by kneading the dough.
On his next visit, the client walked in with a huge pan of cinnamon rolls to give to Bontrager.
“Developing humor along with the relationship is also substantial in therapy,” he said.
With each patient, a goal throughout Bontrager’s career was to help them see hope for themselves and to embrace the new creation.
“Another goal I had was to be patient and give it time, because change doesn’t happen in six or seven days; it is a journey and may take 40 years.”
Bontrager said Prairie View as a company has evolved over the years he has been employed, because it used to be just a hospital when he began and now it has grown to provide a multitude of different services.
“The concept of providing service has always been paramount,” he said.
After retirement, Bontrager said his immediate plans are to take some family vacations that are pleasurable but the focus is on family.
“I don’t like the word retirement. It is refocusing,” he said. “I think I will struggle with refocusing. I like woodworking, gardening, being with people, and my whole goal is to be creative and part of that will be in woodworking.”
Week by week, month by month, he said he will see where life takes him.
Bontrager retired at the end of June.
Prairie View, Inc., a faith-based behavioral and mental health services provider, offers treatment and psychiatric services for all ages as well as consultations for businesses and organizations. In addition to our main campus in Newton with outpatient offices, psychiatric hospital, residential treatment for adolescents, and the Addictions Treatment Center, Prairie View serves patients in Hillsboro, McPherson and at two locations in Wichita. To discover ways you can support Prairie View’s mission to help people transform their lives, call 800-992-6292 or see www.prairieview.org/support-us/.