“We have all known the long loneliness, and we have found that the answer is community,” wrote social activist Dorothy Day.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us have felt lonely, some despite the presence of family members and friends in our households.
La Plata County’s Community Health Action Coalition offers a solution, a program called Creating Connections, which encourages area residents to connect with others, especially those who are lonely and in need of support.
Actually, the group of 20 or so volunteers was already addressing loneliness as an issue before the pandemic struck, according to Lynn Westberg and Pat Senecal, friends and volunteers in the program.
Among the group of 20-or-so CHAC volunteers was the late Lon Erwin, a well-liked and well-known Durangoan who had been head of Community Connections, a program for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. (There’s that word again: connections.)
“He was just a good guy who loved people,” Westberg said. “It was said if Lon was waiting to meet you and there was a bench nearby, you’d find him sitting there, talking with someone.
“He knew the whole town. Three hundred people came to his funeral.”
Senecal had learned of an evidence-based mental health initiative started in Zimbabwe called Friendship Bench in which lay people are trained in outreach therapy. They meet with community members in public spaces, mainly just to listen to people talk about their lives and as a result, feel connected.
Erwin had been intuitively doing just that.
After Erwin died in 2019, a group of his friends purchased two benches in his honor that were installed along the Animas River Trail, one near Schneider Skate Park on Roosa Avenue on the west side of the river, and one at Santa Rita Park south of downtown.
CHAC’s pre-pandemic plan was to begin training volunteers for bench-sitting and connecting with people, including people who are homeless.
Enter COVID-19. Abandoning bench-sitting for the time being, the group took a list of ways they had developed to safely connect with others and revised it to suit the pandemic. It was distributed to physicians throughout the community and to libraries. Some of the group pivoted to telephone outreach.
Westberg connected with seniors left isolated when Durango-La Plata County Senior Center shut down. The director, Vicki Maestas, suggested that some seniors might benefit from a simple phone call once or twice a week.
“I ended up with seven people,” Westberg said, as if surprised by her good fortune. “They’re a kick, very independent.” One of her favorites was a woman who coughed during their first conversation, explaining, “You can probably tell I smoke – but I don’t drink and I don’t chase men anymore.”
Senecal ended up phoning 15- to 16-year-old teenagers disaffected from schools who felt very isolated.
Now that the pandemic is waning, the group looks forward to expanding, at least modestly. Senecal is turning the list of ways to connect with people into a bookmark and seeking money to print and distribute them.
Westberg notes that the issue of feeling isolated and lonely won’t disappear with COVID-19. Those persistent feelings can be blamed in part on the way the region has become politically polarized, she said.
“Our community wasn’t always this divided,” she said. “I had the conservative of La Plata County on my (public health) board. We would stand on the corner and talk – never agreeing on anything – but we always parted friends,” she reminisced wistfully.
Whether you’re feeling lonely or want to help someone else who may be, in the end, both people on the “friendship bench” – real or imaginary – benefit from the connection.
“Talk with a stranger and make a new friend,” say the inscriptions on the benches honoring Erwin.
If you’re interested in learning how to reach out to others, visit chaclaplata.org and click “Creating Connections.” If you’d like to participate in the group, Westberg is planning a meeting in April. Contact her at [email protected]. All Four Corners residents who would like to connect are welcome.