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Bunny Skirboll brings lifelong work to Sarasota

Bunny Skirboll founded Compeer in 1975, in Rochester, N.Y. Its Sarasota branch is celebrating its fifth anniversary this month.

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  • | 6:00 a.m. March 9, 2016
Bunny Skirboll
Bunny Skirboll
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For Longboat Key resident Bunny Skirboll, a near-death experience altered her path in life. She was in her 20s when she was involved in a serious car accident.

“I was in the hospital for two months, and you have a lot of time to think and pray,” Skirboll said. “When you’re young and in your 20s, you take your life for granted. I said if I survived, I’d do something worthwhile with my life. I’d make a difference.”

In 1975, in Rochester, N.Y., Skirboll founded Compeer, an organization that gives children and adults with mental health challenges one-on-one friendship with a volunteer.

“There weren’t adequate support systems in the community where these people were put after being in a state hospital,” Skirboll said. “Sometimes, they were put somewhere without any family or friends. How do we help them readjust to the community? That’s where I came up with this idea. It helps you with living skills and social skills. It does things your friends and families would do. I took the simple idea of friendship and brought it in to the complex field of mental health.”

Compeer eventually expanded to all of New York state and then to the rest of the U.S. as well as Canada and Australia. Five years ago, Compeer came to Sarasota.

Skirboll retired to Longboat Key 11 years ago and eventually volunteered at the Senior Friendship Center, where a task force was formed to see if there was a need for a program like Compeer in Sarasota.

“There was nothing here on one-on-one friendships that helps people on the road to recovery,” Skirboll said.

Skirboll said Compeer’s Sarasota branch has helped hundreds of local residents since its founding but is disappointed by the lack of help from the state.

“Mental health funding is not where it should be in Florida,” she said. “At this point in other states, Compeer would have state and local funding. I came from the No. 1 state to the No. 50. I came here, and I feel like I’m back to 40 years ago.”

Compeer’s Sarasota branch is always looking for volunteers, who meet with their friends for four hours each month.

“There’s still such a stigma with mental illness, so it’s hard to recruit volunteers,” Skirboll said. “People say they can’t volunteer because they spend some of the year up north. But it’s better to have a friend for half a year than not at all.”

Volunteers are matched into friendships based on similar interests and available time.

“There was a woman who was barely getting by,” Skirboll said. “She was interested in music, so we paired her with someone who was too. One of my most meaningful experiences was when I went to the opera, and the two of them were ushering together. She said it brings back important things in her life. It brings back meaning.”

Although Compeer Sarasota currently only focuses on adults, Skirboll’s hope is to expand it to children within the next year.

For more information on Compeer and to volunteer, call Lynn Buehler, 927-8900, Ext. 1126.


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