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Volunteering. The healing power of friendship

By Diana Colson

Dale Wolfson is the volunteer coordinator for Compeer Sarasota. Compeer provides healing friendships and mentoring for youth ages 5 to 17 and adults of all ages living with mental illness.  It is an internationally-recognized mental health agency, and Compeer’s volunteers are positioned to make a remarkable difference in someone’s life.

As volunteer coordinator, Dale looks for friendly, accepting and emotionally mature volunteers who are looking for a flexible opportunity, one which commits them to an average of 4 hours per month for a period of at least one year. It is not a lot of time, but the results can be profound.

The organization was founded by Bernice “Bunny” Skirboll over 40 years ago. She had suffered a near-fatal automobile accident, and her long rehabilitation made her realize the incredible power of friendship.  She got together with psychologists at the University of Rochester and started the program nationally in 1973. Today there are 4000 volunteers in Compeer organizations around the world!

The concept is simple; it is about doing things that you regularly enjoy doing and sharing those experiences with someone who truly appreciates your time and company.  It pairs up volunteers with someone who is looking for a friend and, in the case of youth, a mentor and role model.

Volunteers participate with their matches in activities such as dining out, attending sporting events, visiting museums, creating art projects, cooking, and outdoor recreation.  Choices are limitless, and activities are based on mutual interest. Volunteers might also tutor or help youth with homework.  The idea here is to build self-confidence, self-reliance, and healthy relationships through the healing power of friendship. Clients are referred into the program by their therapists, doctors, school counselors or case managers.

Volunteers are thoroughly screened and trained for their important work. They are matched according to their preferences, and the matches are supported every step of the way by the Compeer staff.

There are 2-hour quarterly roundtables where volunteers meet with other volunteers to discuss common issues, concerns and share experiences. As Compeer volunteer coordinator, Dale Wolfson is always available to provide help and advice, as are teachers and parents of the youth, as well as the mental health professionals who recommended the clients to the program. Compeer gives all volunteers the tools and resources necessary. They know who to call should they have an issue. There is LOTS of support available within the program.

Says Dale, “The children and adults we serve may suffer from anxiety, depression, bi-polar disorder, or schizophrenia, a full range of mental health disorders. The youth may also have attention deficit disorder or exhibit symptoms of autism. Usually the adults are isolated, their family and friends having rejected them because of their illness.  We are dealing with fragile people here.  That’s why we ask the volunteer to make a commitment for at least one year.  At the end of that year we reevaluate the relationship, but most of our matches go on for many years.”

All volunteers must pass screening: fingerprints for the FBI, background checks through the Dept. of Children & Families and the Child Abuse Registry.

Dale taught school before stopping to raise her family. In 1996, she and her husband moved to Pennsylvania.  There she and her husband ran the KLAS program, Kids Learning After School, for at-risk students, funded federally by the 21st Century Community Learning Center grant.  Her background in education includes being a classroom teacher of middle school and high school students, and a life skills teacher to developmentally-delayed adults at Children’s Haven.

Speaking from personal experience as a Compeer volunteer with an adult match, Dale says: “This is one of the most rewarding experiences one can have as a volunteer.  Working with Compeer can be a life changer for both the client and the volunteer.  I no longer think of my time spent with my friend as ‘volunteering.’  I’ve made a new friend and we socialize together just as I do with all my other friends.  It’s win-win for both of us.”

Although the program calls for a one-year commitment, Snowbirds are able to participate. In today’s world, the electronic meeting room is useful, especially with kids. When out of town, snowbirds can stay in touch with their match via Skype, phone, Facebook, Instagram, etc.

In summary Compeer’s model matches people in a 1:1 relationship that utilizes the HEALING POWER OF FRIENDSHIP to change lives.

Several Siesta Key residents now volunteer at Compeer Sarasota, but more are always needed. Learn more at www.compeersarasota.org. Talk with Dale Wolfson about this extraordinary and important opportunity. She may be reached at the Compeer office, located in the administrative offices of Coastal Behavioral Healthcare, at 941-927-8900, ext. 1123 and dwolfson@coastalbh.org, or personally at dalewolfson1@gmail.com and at 941- 923-2229 or 717-404-7815.