COPAKE, N.Y. -- It's lunchtime and people of all ages are streaming in from the morning's work. From gardens of vegetables and medicinal plants, out of the weavery and the bookbindery, from the other houses dotting the green hills, they all come and they are all hungry.
Under gauzy curtains and a tangle of plants, there is a table set with bread baked a few houses away, butter and milk from down the hill, and vegetables picked that morning. One villager -- for this is a village, a world unto itself -- lights a homemade candle, another starts grace. Everyone clasps hands around the table and intones, ''May the meal be blessed."
That a good number of the people sitting at the table have a variety of developmental disabilities is somewhat beside the point. This is Camphill Village, a voluntary community of adults -- disabled and not -- who live and work together, and everyone participates in whatever way they can.
Copake, a little town off the Taconic State Parkway near the western corners of Massachusetts and Connecticut, is home to the largest of the eight Camphills in North America, one of about 100 worldwide. ''Villagers," in the local lingo, might have a range of challenges, from Down syndrome to autism; ''coworkers" are unpaid volunteers of all ages who may stay for three months or a lifetime. Visitors are welcome to tour the village and browse the gift shop with its homemade wares.
In a discouraging job market, more and more college graduates are overflowing the application pools of alternative postgraduate options like Teach for America and the Peace Corps, whose capacity and budget limitations mean they, too, are turning away qualified applicants. But while some Americans work at the roughly 100 Camphills abroad, from Scotland to South Africa, in a US Camphill you will find more volunteers from abroad, especially Northern Europe, looking for a travel experience that combines service.
The all-encompassing activity requires a commitment to a place where, as Philipp Koerber, 20, of Sinzheim, Germany, puts it, ''Your workday starts when you wake up and ends when you go to sleep."
Volunteers take different paths to Camphill. There's Aldo Lavaggi, 25, of Woodstock, N.Y., who studied herbal medicine in California and found his way to the healing plant garden. David Schmucker, 25, of Shelbyville, Ind., majored in telecommunications and came to Camphill looking for community.
Peter Madsen, 34, of Palo Alto, Calif., found Camphill soon after graduating from Evergreen State College. ''I had a college education that prepared me for nothing in particular, and I went out of my way to get it," he says. ''I had no answer for what I was going to do with my liberal arts education until I came to Camphill and realized that it was relevant I had studied a bit of ballet, botany, anthropology, music, public speaking, philosophy, religion, and writing."
Madsen spent three years studying biodynamic gardening at a Camphill in Norway and five years starting a Camphill initiative near St. Petersburg. When his two sons neared kindergarten age, Madsen and his German wife, Petra, headed stateside. Now head of a Camphill household and the village gardener, Madsen is passionate about creating both agricultural and social renewal.
''The work with people with special needs is a medicine for all of us so-called normal and clever people who are so wrapped up in our own needs," he says. ''The gift of living here is that you jump over your own shadow to attend to someone else's need."
At Camphill, the philosophy is that meaningful work is the best medicine, whatever the diagnosis.
''We are looking out to make people realize that they are part of the foundation of the community's existence," says Regula Stolz, the Swiss-born volunteer coordinator at Copake and a 40-year veteran of Camphills worldwide. ''Developmental problems have meant that villagers might never come to that point of really experiencing themselves accomplishing something, until they dig in with the shovel or push the wheelbarrow and experience joy in their movement."
At the seed shop last summer, I joined a team of coworkers and villagers in picking out seeds from the melon harvest to be sold to organic growers the world over. After some strenuous scooping, we celebrated by tasting the fresh, luscious melons and delivering the rest around the village.
That coworkers and house parents are unpaid beyond a stipend forms an integral part of the Camphill philosophy of practical idealism. ''When you work with people who thank you for giving them tasks, you start to feel dense for not giving thanks for your own work," says Madsen. ''It doesn't just give them something to do, it gives both of us meaning to our lives. This isn't charitable service. We're part of the same crew."
Karen Wallstein, 61, the first villager at Copake, came 40 years ago from a state hospital. ''I love the village," she says. ''I can be on my own, not under lock and key."
Visit www.camphill.org for more information.
Irin Carmon, a student at Harvard University, is a researcher-writer for Let's Go Travel Guides. Taking Off, her column on student travel, appears the third Sunday of the month. She can be reached at email@example.com.