THE HEALING POWER OF FRIENDSHIP

THE HEALING POWER OF FRIENDSHIP

From Chicken Soup for the Volunteer's Soul

The Healing Power of Friendship

Friendship doubles our joy and divides our grief.

Cicero

Some twenty-eight years ago, an appealing ad in a local newsletter in Rochester, New York, caught my eye:

     WANTED: Men and women to provide support and friendship to someone who is feeling lonely and isolated. Must be kind, gentle and patient. Previous experience with the mentally ill a plus. No pay. If you care, you qualify.

Since I considered myself to be qualified, I signed up to help. I had been thinking about pursuing a volunteer opportunity anyway, and I knew what it meant to be lonely.

My responsibility as a participant in the Compeer Program was to befriend a person diagnosed with a mental illness. I was to visit my newly assigned friend and provide nourishing support and encouragement for at least one hour a week, over a period of a year. Although it seemed like a modest investment of time, I wasn’t thoroughly convinced one hour a week would make the slightest bit of difference. Nevertheless, I was determined to try.

A short time later, I went to visit my first new “friend,” Millie. Hospitalized at the local psychiatric center for years, she had recently been released to a group home. In the beginning, I did most of the talking. “Good afternoon, Millie. My name is Barb, and I’m looking forward to spending some time with you as your friend.”

Millie was extremely quiet and severely introverted, shyly sitting in the corner of the sofa finding it difficult to speak. Occasionally she would glance up to peek at me, being careful not to allow our eyes to meet. Over time, Millie gradually began to trust me. She became more comfortable in my presence but remained somewhat cautious. Our weekly get-togethers usually meant sharing a mug of piping hot coffee, going for long walks, window shopping at the mall or taking slow rides in the country.

As I learned more about Millie, I discovered others close to her had betrayed her trust and let her down. No stranger to adversity throughout her life, the stigma of having a mental illness only compounded her feelings of isolation.

Although I felt like I was a good role model, Millie continued to lack self-esteem and the ability to make decisions. Her progress was excruciatingly slow. For Millie, success was simply maintaining her current condition and staying out of the hospital.

Millie never discussed how she felt about our friendship, even after we completed our first year together. Just enjoying our time together seemed acceptable. Our friendship continued over the years, and Millie knew she could always depend on me.

Then one day I got a call from our volunteer coordinator. “Barb, would you and Millie like to be interviewed on a local TV news show?”

Astonished, I responded, “Wow! Let me discuss it with Millie and get back to you. Is tomorrow morning soon enough?”

Besides my own fears, I didn’t think Millie would be comfortable going on “live” television. We discussed it, and to my amazement Millie wanted to be interviewed as long as I would be there, too. I said, “If you will, I will. Deal?”

“Deal!” Millie stated confidently.

On interview day, I picked Millie up. She had been ready and waiting for hours. On the way to the TV station, Millie declared enthusiastically, “If I can help other people understand how important our friendship is, and how it has helped me, maybe they’ll volunteer, too. Then people on the waiting list can be matched with someone like you, Barb. Wouldn’t that be great?”

“That would be magnificent,” I rapidly agreed.

As I drove, tears flowed from my eyes and across the steering wheel. Millie had never let me know how much she valued our friendship until that moment. We smiled at one another in silence.

At the TV station, the interviewer prepped us on the questions she was going to ask. Our tension mounted as a troop of Boy Scouts, touring the studio, lined up to watch the pending interview. Trying to conceal our frazzled nerves, Millie and I were like two swans swimming on a tranquil lake: smooth on the surface but paddling furiously underneath.

Our interview proceeded flawlessly, better than we could have hoped for. Millie turned out to be the poised, confident and articulate one, 99 percent better than I. She spoke with sincerity and without a trace of nervousness. With impressive candor, she revealed her situation and the positive impact her “new friend” had on her life. What a day!

From then on, Millie never missed an opportunity to plant the seeds about the Compeer Program with others. Her face literally lit up whenever she talked about our special friendship. I was proud of my friend who had broken out of her shell at last. Millie proved that no matter what label society gives us, being labeled a friend is the most treasured of all.

Barb Mestler

[EDITORS’ NOTE: For more information on the Compeer Program, contact 259 Monroe Ave., Rochester, NY 14607; 800-836-0475; fax: 585-325-2558; e-mail: [email protected]; Web site: www.compeer.org. Among her awards, Barb has earned a “Point of Light” for her volunteering from the Points of Light Foundation & Volunteer Center National Network, 1400 I Street, N.W., Suite 900, Washington, DC 20005; 800-VOLUNTEER; fax: 202-729-8100; e-mail: [email protected]; Web site: www.pointsoflight.org.]

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