Friday, August 13, 2010

Special friendships grow out of Cool Aid connection

The two young women across the table from me look a lot like friends.
They keep up a running banter. About the disastrous time they tried to go ice-skating. The great meal they shared at Anawim House. How weird it is that they each have parents who’ve been to Germany to see The Passion, and mothers who are nurses.  
Friendships come in all shapes and sizes. The only thing that distinguishes this one is that it took a little planning to make it happen.  One of the young women is a mentor and the other, her mentoring match. They met through a local program that aims to nurture new friendships to life in the region.
The Mentoring Project is a joint effort of the Victoria Cool Aid Society and the Umbrella Society, and is fully funded by the United Way.  Mentors and participants come from all walks of life, although most have in common an experience with mental illness or addiction either in their own lives or that of their families.
Neither Brieana Murray nor Beth Cormier had ever tried anything like the Mentoring Project before signing up last summer.  
Murray, the mentor, heard about it through a friend, and liked the idea of giving her time in a hands-on way. Cormier was just coming out of a rough patch in her life that had briefly landed her on the street; she was searching for ways to “reconnect” when a staff member at Our Place told her about the program.
Eleven months into their match, they’re happy at how things have worked out. Program co-ordinator Marna Lynn Smith says the matches don’t always click so beautifully, but it’s obvious that these two women have found a fit.
“You’re matched with someone your own age and you just hang out,” says Cormier. “It’s not counselling, it’s not meeting with some doctor, it’s not anything so official. Meeting Brieana has provided a little normalcy for my life. I like being able to just chit-chat, and not always dealing with the heavy stuff.”
The program starts with 30 hours of training over 10 weeks for mentors. (Email Smith at for information on the next training session in September). Smith tries to match people by age and gender, but that’s not always possible; at the moment, there are five mentors under age 25 ready to be matched, but most of the people looking for support are older.
The matching process is “both an art and a science,” says Smith - one that can come down to a gut feeling about “the right moment” for a specific match. People are asked to commit to spending at least two or three hours a week together, face-to-face ideally but via email and phone when the demands of life interfere.
The contract is for a year, with the opportunity to renew at that point or wrap it up with Smith’s help.
“We can check in any time people feel it’s needed. We can even have team meetings to talk things over,” says Smith. “But mostly I don’t micro-manage. The sooner you can get the ball rolling between the people who have been matched, the better things work out.”
The program is intended as an add-on to the more intensive kinds of support some people require.  Smith won’t match mentoring participants unless they’ve got other supports and connections in their lives. Fortunately, the service is part of Cool Aid’s REES program for people with mental illness and addiction, so they can get connected to other supports just by walking through the door.
Cormier appreciates that addiction is included in the mentors’ training. Not all participants have addictions, but having it out there in the open as a potential issue meant Cormier was comfortable talking openly with Murray about her own recovery.
“From my experience, you become your addiction. You become your mental-health issue. To find people who will look at me and take me as a person has meant a lot to me,” says Cormier. “You do get shunned when you’ve got those kinds of problems, and it’s nice to be able to connect through something like this. There’s nothing else like it in the region.”
For those hesitant about stepping forward for support, Cormier has some advice: “Don’t be afraid.” Murray has similar advice for prospective mentors worried about what kind of relationship they’re getting into.
“It’s a friendship,” says Murray. “I don’t know if it’s that way for everybody, but it is for us.”

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