February 27, 2020
Program helps people with disabilities forge friendships
IF the people you spend almost all your time with were only there because they got paid, how lonely would that make you feel?
Studies show that people with developmental disabilities can have nearly 800 paid staff cycle through their lives, yet many do not have friends who are there simply because they choose to be. In my role as a manager of volunteer services for St. Amant, I started wondering how I would feel if I had to move from a large residential facility where I’d spent most of my life and into a community home with new staff — perhaps without the presence of family, let alone friends.
That’s when I got my team involved to create PALS (Partnership through Activities, Learning and Sharing), a matchmaking service for friendships. PALS began in 2017 in an effort to address the barriers that people with disabilities face when connecting with people and sustaining friendships. These can include mobility, transportation, communication, social stigma, and economic issues, to name just a few.
We started by asking questions. How is it that we make friends? What fosters long-term, meaningful connections? We found that one of the answers lies in finding people who share our interests, and that’s where PALS plays an important role. We ask participants questions about personal interests, goals, and what each interviewee wants from friendship. Responses are cross-referenced to help match volunteers and people we support, with the goal of creating a meaningful bond between friends who see beyond each other’s limitations.
Once an initial match is made, “first dates” are held. These are group meetings that include family members and/ or St. Amant staff. We introduce people we support to the volunteers and see if there’s a connection. If the match doesn’t seem to click, either party can back out. Where a connection is made, we step aside after three “dates” to let the friendship grow naturally, without interference from other people.
Friends matched through PALS get together the same way you and I do with our friends: meeting for movies, meals, concerts, shopping, holidays, and whatever other activities they choose. Through social media, they can even stay connected if one moves away.
A strong friendship between Lyle and Maggie (whose names have been changed to respect their privacy) provides an example of how PALS works to build friendships. Lyle was in middle school when he came to volunteer at St. Amant and told us, “I want to spend my time with Maggie. She’s alone and needs a friend.” There’s a big age difference between Maggie and Lyle, so we weren’t sure how it would go, but their bond is very strong. Maggie is always smiling and laughing with Lyle.
Then there is Thomas (not his real name), who lived at St. Amant’s facility at 440 River Road for 45 years before moving to his own home. Two years ago, his father died, and since his mom could not visit him immediately, she contacted his PALS, Sarah, Teaky, and Sara and asked them to break the news. She trusted they’d handle the situation with the care only a close circle of friends can provide. While it’s true that PALS matches have not always been perfect, each attempt has offered a learning experience to make us better matchmakers.
As St. Amant’s River Road facility changes from long-term to transitionary care, long-term residents are finding homes in the community. And I think it’s telling that every person who has moved to a home still has their PALS. To me, that’s a clear demonstration the matches we’re helping to make often become true, lasting friendships. We’re proud to have made 71 PALS matches since 2017 with people ranging from 12 to 70 years of age.
Based on that success, we’re aiming for every person we support to have at least two PALS. And the best part? Each volunteer who is a PALS participant is there because they want to have a friend, and to be one.