COMPEER: Promoting Mental Health Through Meaningful Friendships
Too often people who experience mental health challenges feel isolated and alone, without a community of peers or friends. WJCS’ Compeer program addresses this issue by bringing together volunteers and those challenged by mental health issues in a supportive, one-to-one friendship and mentoring relationship.
Ben Blumberg, Executive Vice President of Stark Office Suites, has been a Compeer volunteer for eight years. “What started out as a one-year commitment has led to a close friendship,” says Blumberg, 53. His match, a 60-year-old man who has Asperger’s Syndrome, schizophrenia, and compulsive disorder, was about 350 pounds when they met. “Last year, he got to 158 pounds,” Blumberg says proudly. “I support him and encourage him. I’m his only friend. This is something that is very meaningful to me. It’s tikkun olam in a micro way. I’m making a real difference in someone’s life.”
Compeer, which started at WJCS in 1986, changes lives, says Laura Stein, Coordinator of the program for the past thirteen years. “The friendships formed boost people’s confidence, decrease their isolation, improve their social skills, and give them a more positive outlook on life,” she explains. The benefit is two-sided. Marguerita Johnson, a Compeer volunteer for the past five years, says, “The program has opened my heart to share all the love I have. Because of the Compeer program, I went back to school after a job injury and today I have earned a Master’s degree in Social Work. I could not have done this without the Compeer program. Mental health is my passion and that is what Compeer is all about.”
The adults with whom the volunteers are matched are in mental health treatment and have been referred by a mental health professional. Volunteers are screened, trained, and receive ongoing supervision and support from Compeer staff.
WJCS’ Compeer program currently has 33 volunteers. While WJCS only requires a one-year commitment from each volunteer, there have been many matches that have lasted much longer. “Some program participants have told me that they will always remain friends with their match, regardless of whether they stay enrolled in Compeer. Participants sometimes develop such close friendships that they become like family to each other,” says Stein.
Volunteers spend time with their matches doing activities they enjoy, from taking walks to watching movies and attending sporting events. The program sponsors many events—films shown at local libraries, outings to plays, and much more.
“I would like all participants to see firsthand that people with mental health conditions can live productive, enjoyable lives with the right treatment and social support, and can make valuable contributions to society,” says Stein.
Founded in 1973 in Rochester, NY, Compeer now has 50 chapters worldwide. If you are interested in becoming a COMPEER volunteer, please contact: Laura Stein, Compeer Coordinator at (914) 761-0600 x208 or write [email protected]