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There is a “stigma still out there, I have to admit,” about mental illness, says Gary Yoder.

Now a member of Mental Health America of Lancaster and Lancaster Compeer, serving on the board of directors and the executive committee, Yoder says he probably wouldn’t have thought about getting involved with the organization if it weren’t for a neighbor encouraging him to come on board.

He quickly saw Mental Health America of Lancaster County, which merged with Compeer in 2013, as “an opportunity to change the community’s perspective” on people with mental illness.

The lack of social interaction that many people who have mental illness face, Yoder says, can exacerbate their difficulties.

And that, says Compeer Lancaster’s volunteer coordinator, is where Compeer fills a need.

The premise is simple: two people, matched through common interests and other factors, meet for a minimum of four hours a month for recreation, social and educational activities. Some of those activities are Compeer-sponsored, while others are just what each pair of friends comes up with on their own.

Each party has to commit to staying with their matched friends for at least a year.

Volunteers receive training before being matched in supportive relationships with people referred by mental health professionals (see below for an explanation of the process). But what many of the volunteers find, coordinator Joe Mills says, is that the friendship truly does become a mutual one.

About 60 percent of the local Compeer affiliate’s matches stay for more than three years, Mills says — and the original match is still going strong, 12-plus years after it was made.

Getting started

The matching process, says Compeer Lancaster Volunteer Coordinator Joe Mills, works like this:

  • People recovering from mental illness are referred to the program by a mental health professional.

Compeer reviews the referral for appropriateness — referrals of a client with any history of criminal activity, aggressive behavior, dementia or some other circumstances will be discussed before being accepted into the program.

The referral form, among other information, includes hobbies, special interests and other details to help make a good match.

  • While friends are are on the waiting list for a Compeer Friendship Match, they’ll get a weekly 15-minute telephone call from a volunteer.
  • Meanwhile, people interested in volunteering with the program fill out their own application forms, and get screened and trained by Compeer staff.
  • Once the volunteer is ready to be matched, they’re given a list of several profiles selected by Compeer staff based on age, location, mutual interests, hobbies and skill level and experience of the volunteer.
  • The volunteer calls the potential friend’s referring mental health professional to get additional information.
  • Once the match is made, a meeting is arranged with the mental health professional, client, volunteer and Compeer Coordinator.

As of May 2013, there were 61 active Friendship matches (238 since the program’s inception in Lancaster) and 25 active Calling matches. Volunteers range in age from 19 to their 80s. There were 53 people waiting for a volunteer Compeer.

The annual Compeer Friendship Luncheon for the friendship pairs will e held April 12. For more information about Compeer Lancaster, 630 Janet Ave., call 397.7461, email compeer@compeerlancaster.org or visit compeerlancaster.org.

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Jen Kopf is co-editor of Lancaster Newspapers' Lifestyle section. She also writes feature stories, and is part of the What Ales Ya staff and a Voices columnist. She can be reached at jkopf@lnpnews.com or (717) 291-8644. You can also follow @jlkopf on Twitter.