The Compeer Sarasota founder uses friendship to fight mental-illness stigma.
Even at 98, Ann Hartka can still be found around town with her brown clipboard, recruiting volunteers for the organization that’s closest to her heart.
“I’m just a recruiter,” she says. “I go where there’s a crowd, where there’s a lot of people, and I’ve been pretty successful.”
Despite her modesty, Hartka is more than a recruiter. She is the founder of the Sarasota Chapter of Compeer, an international nonprofit organization that pairs community volunteers with individuals who receive mental-health treatment to foster a unique companionship.
After being an active member of the advisory board for its five years of existence, Hartka still prefers to do her service outside of board meetings — in the most hands-on way possible.
Growing up in Philadelphia, Hartka watched her cousin, Jeff Shair, struggle with paranoid schizophrenia. He was diagnosed at 17, but with the support of his Compeer match, he eventually gained the encouragement he needed to finish high school, attend Temple University and become a journalist and public speaker. He now serves as a consultant for the Philadelphia Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual Disability Services and travels the U.S. speaking about how Compeer has changed his life.
Compeer volunteers are required to meet with their match at least once a week. During this time, matches can do whatever they wish, from a walk through Bayfront Park to a night at the movies. But for Hartka, it’s volunteers like Shair’s, who go beyond the one-hour minimum for each meeting, who make the real difference.
Hartka says after seeing the positive effect that the program had on Shair, she decided to start a local Compeer chapter.
The chapter began when Hartka brought the idea to Brother William Geenan, the founder of Senior Friendship Centers, in 2011. He housed the program for one year, and in January 2013, Coastal Behavioral Healthcare Inc. became the sponsoring organization for Compeer.
Lynn Buehler, director of the Compeer program, says Hartka was persistent in not only ensuring the program got started, but also that it flourished.
“Ann really pushed it forward,” she says. “When she latched on to the possibility, she was going to make sure that it was going to succeed here.”
Hartka says her passion for mental health awareness developed when she learned the staggering statistics associated with the lack of attention that mental health receives in Florida. According to a 2015 National Alliance on Mental Illness report, Florida ranked 49th in the nation for state funding for mental health.
Finding volunteers who are interested in providing emotional support to people with mental illness, she believes, can help counteract this unfortunate reality.
“Because these people are either suicidal or they’re depressed — having a friend just changes their life,” she says. “They really appreciate it.”
Hartka calls the program the “main point” of her life, something Buehler believes keeps the volunteer signup clipboard filled with names.
“She’s so lovely and so energetic, it’s hard to say no to her,” she says. “She’s just a beautiful person inside and out.”
My world had fallen apart and I felt deserted.
My Compeer volunteer was a sudden light.
These days I am so much better and my
Compeer friend is a huge part of it.
— *Compeer client's poem about match Steve VanderClay
*Client name withheld for confidentiality reasons.