We all need someone to bounce ideas off of, someone to empathize with us, someone to talk to. We all need to be valued.

Humans are social creatures. No person is an island.

But if human interaction is our ally in this journey we call “life,” then isolation is the enemy.

Those are the principles upon which Compeer was founded. But during these times of social distancing, stay-at-home orders, and COVID-19, Compeer’s mission has been compromised.

Because it’s in the “friend” business, all the current set of circumstances has really done is forced the local office of Compeer to get creative.

“From my perspective, everyone needs a friend, but especially in this time of COVID-19,” said Kendra Elliott, who’s the executive director of Compeer of Lebanon County. “Sometimes you struggle with what your life is going to look like tomorrow. Everyone needs support in some small way. Just ask someone how they are. It goes a long way.

“Human interaction is extremely important,” continued Elliott. “It’s human nature to want to have someone to talk to or to have a shoulder to lean on. If you’re facing mental challenges, it’s even more important. It’s important to know that you have, not only someone, but also a service.”

Mary and Beverly enjoy a laugh while making some handcrafts. (Provided photo)

Compeer is a national organization founded in Rochester, New York in 1973. One of eight affiliates in Pennsylvania, Compeer of Lebanon, currently located at 4 South Fourth Street in the city, was established by Dr. John Biever in 1999.

The title “Compeer” is an amalgamation of the words “companion” and “peer.”

“Compeer’s mission is to help support clients with mental health diagnoses,” said Elliott. “We basically get referrals from the system, the county or a hospital, and we pair them up with volunteers. Usually the individuals referred are looking for someone to support them. They may be suffering from anxiety, suffering from depression or some other mental health issue.

“We just want natural friendships to occur,” Elliott continued. “Human interaction can be therapeutic. Sometimes it just doesn’t work out, and that’s OK. We’re kind of a hidden secret in our community. Whether people use us as a service or a volunteer opportunity, we are just open.”

With a staff of just two full-time employees, Compeer of Lebanon County services about 100 clients —Lebanon County residents who are referred to as “friends” — at any given time. Friends are paired with a wide assortment of volunteers, who receive non-clinical training on the nuances of interacting with people suffering from mental and emotional issues.

Compeer of Lebanon County operates a traditional program designed for adults, as well as a youth mentoring program geared towards students.

“Some of our volunteers are individually matched, one-on-one, and some have multiple friends,” said Elliott, a 32-year-old resident of Lebanon. “They are how we function. They are extremely important. If we didn’t have them, we wouldn’t have the option of matching them with friends. Without our volunteers, we wouldn’t be able to do what we do.

“One of the things that makes us unique is our training,” added Elliott. “We want volunteers, and we train our volunteers. Now that individual has someone to call. We offer friendships and support. That is our mission.”

Joe and Don pose for a photo during an earlier Compeer event. (Provided photo)

Those relationships, support and mission are also based on personal, face-to-face interaction. The coronavirus crisis has forced Compeer of Lebanon to re-think what it does and how it does it.

“For the individuals we serve, it has definitely impacted them,” said Elliott of the COVID-19 pandemic. “Our main focus is getting people out of isolation. It heightens the anxiety. It makes it more challenging for them to function in their daily lives. It becomes a chore. Our biggest fear is suicidal thoughts, especially if they had pre-existing conditions before COVID-19. We’re kind of in limbo because of the crisis. That’s why we’ve shifted to ‘phone buddies’ and the phone option.

“Honestly, face-to-face interaction can never be replaced,” Elliott added. “It is a fundamental part of our program. Right now, with phone calls and texting, it is different. It has its challenges. But for now, it’s helping versus doing nothing. It’s not replacing, but it’s helping.”

Compeer volunteers are asked to spend four hours a month — perhaps ten to 15 minutes a couple of times a week — with their newly-made friends. Before COVID-19, that time might include getting a bite to eat or meeting at a local park or attending an event together.

But keeping the lines of communication open has always been important.

“Before a client comes to us, they’re referred,” said Elliott. “We ask the client to fill out an application and then they go through a client interview. Our clients have to be stable to go through the process. They go on a waiting list, but typically some do have a quick turnaround. Once they’re matched, the volunteer gets acclimated with the friend. After that, they choose how to connect. Then we follow up on a monthly basis.

“We try to match people in the same age groups, with the same backgrounds, with the same interests,” continued Elliott. “We ask if religion is an OK subject on both sides. I think honestly, it comes about naturally, especially if it’s something they have in common, or if it’s an opportunity to learn. [Spirituality] is not part of something we push as an agency.”

Enjoying the warmth of friendship (and a bonfire) at a Compeer event. (Provided photo)

COVID-19 has taken its toll on the number and make-up of volunteers, as well. But because of the nature of the work that it does, Compeer of Lebanon is always on the look out for more volunteers.

“Right now, we primarily have a strong group of retired volunteers,” said Elliott. “Our volunteers are males and females who are looking to give some time back. They aren’t required to have a background in social work. That’s where the training comes in.

“It’s hard to get people to volunteer during the COVID-19 crisis,” concluded Elliott. “The only way to recruit volunteers is by phone, until we figure out the current set of circumstances. And we only ask our volunteers to call clients.”

To learn more about Compeer, visit the organization’s website here.

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Jeff Falk is a seasoned journalist based in Lebanon, PA. He's a graduate of Cedar Crest High School, Penn State University, and a lifelong resident of Lebanon, born and raised. Currently, he is a feature writer for Engle Publishing in Lancaster, the editor of LebCoSports.com, sports director at WLBR...


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