Joan Wides builds a bridge from Compeer Sarasota to London, England.
Joan Wides fondly remembers the time she asked her Compeer Sarasota match to go to a screening of a performance by The Metropolitan Opera. Her friend showed up to the movie theater dressed to the nines as if they were going to see it live at the Lincoln Center.
“She was a little overdressed, but it was wonderful,” Wides says. “Nobody said a thing to her about it, but why would they?”
Compeer Sarasota is the local branch of a national nonprofit that connects each of its volunteers with a “match,” aka an individual living with a mental illness, with the goal of fostering a new friendship between people who likely would never meet otherwise.
The individuals are referred to Compeer by health professionals who believe their patient will benefit from a stable, healthy friendship. These friendships have been proven to be therapeutic, and they can decrease the likeliness of isolation, anxiety, depression and other effects of mental illness.
Compeer Sarasota is thorough when it comes to assigning every volunteer to a match. The nonprofit, which is under the umbrella of Coastal Behavioral Healthcare Inc., makes sure the pair can create an organic friendship and have an interest in the same activities. The volunteers and matches are asked to meet at least four times per month.
Wides and her match get together at least that often when she’s in Sarasota, but as a snowbird, Wides spends half the year in London. They make up for the lost time through email, however, and phone calls on birthdays.
Developing this relationship has been not only beneficial for her match but also for Wides.
“There’s a healing power to friendship,” Wides says. “It’s so meaningful for me.”
It’s special not only because she’s experienced the impact of developing an unlikely friendship, but also because Wides knows what having a friend could have meant to her late daughter.
In 2014, Wides’ oldest daughter, Melissa, died at the age of 38. Melissa struggled with mental illness — specifically obsessive compulsive disorder and depression.
Melissa loved the theater like her mom, and Japanese and Chinese food like her dad, Brian Wides. However, as parents, the Wides knew they could only provide so much to her, and that she needed strong friendships outside of her family.
“I see what a difference it (Compeer) could have made to her life,” Wides says.
Growing up in London, the Wides didn’t have the option to pair Melissa with a match. She participated in the closest London equivalent organization, Jewish Association of the Mentally Ill (JAMI), but the charity didn’t have a one-on-one friendship model – until now.
Wides, with her husband, were recently the key link in bringing Compeer overseas and spearheading a merger.
After discussions with Compeer, the Wides invited the organization to visit JAMI in 2017. A year later, JAMI became an official affiliate of Compeer, which is now called Compeer at JAMI.
Wides serves on the advisory board for Compeer at JAMI, and says she is the mediator between the two organizations because she has vast knowledge and familiarity with both of them.
JAMI is using the Compeer model because of its success not only in the states, but in other countries like Canada and Australia.
The model of Compeer has two-sided results — by getting more volunteers into Compeer Sarasota, and now JAMI’s match program, the goal is to provide genuine friendships for those with mental illnesses and reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness.
Wides says she sees herself and other volunteers change lives with their work, and there’s always something to learn from a new friend.
“When I just think how I could have helped our daughter … it (Compeer) would have been a wonderful thing to help her,” she says. “Relationships are the most important thing in the world, that’s what makes us human, that’s what gives you home and that’s what gives you pleasure.”
The Wideses will be honored at Compeer Sarasota’s annual luncheon April 1 for their dedication to the program and creating a bridge between Compeer Sarasota and London.