Westchester’s ‘Compeer’ Program Finds Companions, Friends for Those With Mental Health Disorders

Volunteers find purpose fighting to destigmatize mental illness with acts of kindness.

 

When Ben Blumberg and his friend Robert meet every month at the White Plains Coach Diner, or at Katz’s Delicatessen in Manhattan, or at a Yankee game or museum or any number of spots in the metro area, as they have for the last three years, one of two topics dominates the conversation: New York sports teams, specifically the Giants and Yankees, and politics. Regarding the latter, the two men are polar opposites—Ben, a liberal, and Robert, a conservative—and their differences often spark debate over pastrami sandwiches.

Though close in age—Ben is 49 and Robert’s in his mid-50s—the two come from very different worlds, both internal and external. Ben, a Larchmont resident, is a vice president with Stark Office Suites, and Robert, from Ossining, is unemployed, has Asperger’s Syndrome, among other mental-health issues, and, like many with mental illness, spent years completely isolated from the rest of the world—until he met Ben through the Compeer program at Westchester Jewish Community Services (WJCS).

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Ben and Robert

Compeer, founded in the early ’70s, is an international organization with more than 50 affiliate programs and some 4,000 volunteers across the US, Canada, and Australia. Its mission is to decrease isolation among people who are living with long-term mental-health problems by pairing them one-to-one with same-sex companions. (The program’s name is an old English noun meaning “companion” or “peer.”) Compeer clients are referred from mental health professionals, and the program is simple, says Laura Stein, MSW, program coordinator at Compeer of WJCS in White Plains. “Volunteers just spend time with the people they’re matched with,” she says, “getting to know each other and having fun like any other friends would do.” 

Stein meets with each volunteer and client (there are about 35 matches at any given time in the WJCS program). Volunteers must be interviewed, fingerprinted, and provide references, as well as undergo an additional background check if they’re paired with a child; Stein then trains every volunteer on the process of working with a client. While volunteers agree to spend a minimum of four hours per month with their companions, for at least a year, many, she notes, stay with their matches longer; one pair has been meeting for 18 years now. Though clients come from all points on the mental illness spectrum, from depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder to schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, Stein says that, given the fact that clients must be referred by a mental health professional, it’s very unlikely that anyone dangerous to themselves or others would be part of the program.

As such, volunteers don’t need to have any prior mental health training, says Stein. They just need to be good friends, show compassion, open-mindedness, and, perhaps most of all, consistency. “Reliability is very important,” says Stein. “They’re working with people who are vulnerable, so it’s important to be consistent and maintain the contacts and keep appointments or, if they can’t, let the person know as soon as possible.” Volunteers help clients learn social skills, and, like any good friends, offer advice on vocational and educational opportunities.

Three years after meeting Ben, Robert is in the midst of a weight-loss transformation, down about 100 pounds, and has begun “spring-boarding” off their friendship, looking for his own volunteer opportunities in the community, and joining a synagogue.

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Mental health public policy is in crisis as mainstream understanding of these disorders continues its creeping pace away from the pitchfork and toward destigmatization. Advances in brain science still outstrip the pace at which public perception can separate the long-joined specters of mental disease and secret shame—or worse, public menace.

At least for Ben, Compeer has provided a way of understanding those who struggle with mental illness, and have been, in his words, “left out in the cold.” His relationship with Robert has been about more than getting a troubled man out of his house. “It’s changed my view of mental illness and opened my eyes to the realities of people who are less fortunate like that,” he says. “I think [before Compeer] I would lump people into ‘They’re mentally handicapped and they’re different than I am. They wouldn’t understand my world, or what I’m thinking.’ The truth is, that’s not the truth. They’re caring, loving people who’ve been dealt a hard hand, and it’s not by choice that they have this mental illness.”

Three years ago, Ben never would have expected his relationship with Robert to develop into the natural friendship it’s become. “I don’t feel like I’m in a program anymore. We’re always going to be in each other’s lives.”

For information about becoming a volunteer, contact Laura Stein, MSW at (914) 761-0600 ext 208;  lstein@wjcs.com.

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