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VOLUNTEERING FRIENDSHIP TO THOSE IN NEED

Anyone seeing Cathie Wallace and Carolyn Graser having their nails manicured might guess that they are an indulgent aunt and a grateful niece.

Anyone seeing the easy laughter between Norma Santucci and Barbara Carson would expect that they are childhood friends. But that's not the case and they're willing to tell the story of how they came to know each other and what it's meant to them.

They began as stangers, brought together by mental illness.

They met through Compeer, the agency that matches volunteers with people who are bipolar, schizophrenic, anxiety ridden, depressed, obsessive compulsive, people often left isolated because of their illness.

That lack of support and friendship only heightens the problem, experts say.

"I think when you feel lonely, it makes you sick," said Annette Pinder, Compeer's development director, who is also a volunteer, though a reluctant one initially.

There aren't any agendas for the relationships, just the expectation that there will be a hand to hold and a heart to listen. And, many times, the volunteers say they are on the receiving end of the caring and kindness.

In some cases the matches have bonded and lasted and the person becomes a family friend, included in outings and celebrations; others dissolve. The goal is that, after training, volunteers will stick with a client for at least a year; two-thirds of the matches have lasted at least two years. Volunteers come in as completely inexperienced, as well as professionals in the mental health and social services fields.

Sometimes people are reluctant to volunteer because they aren't sure what they are getting into, Pinder said.

"You wonder how much you can spare and really give in a meaningful way," she said. "If you're honest with yourself, it's daunting in some ways. I remember asking for someone 'easy,' maybe someone in a nursing home, where I could bring my dog to visit."

Instead, she got a once-active but now mostly immobile woman who lives in an apartment, said Pinder. "She told me she really likes me, but then added, 'Doesn't Compeer have any guys?'

"Our relationship has really grown," said Pinder, who values their exchanges. "They couldn't tear her away from me."

Volunteer Joyce Miller looks at her outings not as duties, but as a chance to enjoy her free time with a willing companion who has become a friend. She scours Gusto -- which she calls "my Bible" -- for movies, art exhibits and concerts that they can attend.

"We sing together in the car," said Miller, who said that Compeer has been the perfect volunteer opportunity for her.

"I was looking for a place to volunteer where I could give a hug," she said, "and tell someone I love them."

How it started

Michele Brown, who started Compeer 20 years ago, modeled it after the original one in Rochester, where it began in 1973. Headquartered in the offices adjoining Temple Beth Zion, Compeer Buffalo is one of 100 such affiliates in the United States, Canada and Australia.

"I wanted a place where mentally ill people would be treated respectfully, whatever the case," said Brown, who had witnessed mentally ill people being demeaned in a day treatment facility where she worked.

Currently, Compeer -- which stands for a companion who is also a peer -- tracks 170 adult matches and 180 with children between the ages of 3 and 18, making it the largest provider of one-to-one services for children in the national network.

Still, there are 425 on a waiting list, half of them children, Brown said.

"I think of how brave the people are to step over the illness and say they could use a friend," said Brown, "but no matter what we do, we never have enough volunteers to match them with."

Romain Walker, who is on the Compeer staff, said relationships, understandably, start off awkwardly. "It's a dynamic relationship," said Walker, who is matched with three youngsters. "At first, you just make the best of it. You don't start by saying "Hi, I'm the new good influence in your life.' In some ways, it's analogous to a bad blind date."

See the "inner person'

Starting from the time she was a young adolescent, Cathie Wallace, 17, of Blasdell has had three mentors. She has clicked particularly well with her current match, because they have mutual interests in trips to parks, the University at Buffalo campus and going out to eat.

"I really found a friend that I can pick up the phone and talk to," she said. "If I call her, I get a call back within 24 hours. Before, I didn't have that. Now, I feel normal."

She thinks there'd be more of a chance of that if people just gave themselves a chance to know people who are mentally ill.

"People wouldn't be afraid if they looked at the inner person," Wallace said. "It's not like with mental illness that you can catch it from sitting around with somebody."

Wallace, who received the Star Award from the Hamburg Chamber of Commerce, said she has started doing more things at school. "My Compeer friend urges me on," she said. "I'm a momma's girl, and I wouldn't go places otherwise."

Graser, who owns Graser Florists, said she got involved with Compeer "because "I'm very grateful for everything I have. And I felt I needed to give back to somebody who needs a friend."

Who's the hero?

When Norma Santucci and Barbara Carson are together they finish each other's sentences; they know that they'll always order a salad and two meatball at their favorite restaurant; they know that they'll talk together several times a week.

"I also have a diagnosis of mental illness, and she's been as much of a support for me, as I have for her," said Carson. "Norma is one of those brave people who recognizes her needs. She stepped forward, and she trusted me. So, I say, who's the hero here?"

Santucci said that when she first went to Compeer in its earliest days, she knew exactly what she wanted.

"I said I wanted to be matched with the coolest person they knew," said Santucci. "And that's who they gave me. I never expected to make a friend as good as Barbara."

email: pvoell@buffnews.com