History – and a really good recipe for fudge – convinced Tara Porter to accept a job at Compeer Niagara two years ago, after she landed a bachelor's degree in leadership development from Houghton College.
Her previous work, at People Inc. group homes and a day program for the intellectually disabled, underlined her desire to work where those with limitations were encouraged to live as boldly and completely as possible.
Compeer matches volunteer mentors with those challenged by mental illness, so the prospective job with the nonprofit seemed a logical step. Still, she was a bit uncertain.
The then-Compeer director persisted, and Porter soon learned that her grandparents, Ray and Abbie Clute of Lewiston, had been longtime Compeer volunteers.
"I had known their Compeer friends but just knew them as their friends," she said.
As the director and Porter reminisced about their connection, Porter lamented that her family had lost her grandfather's fudge recipe after her grandparents died a couple of decades earlier.
The fudge, it turned out, had once been a hit at Compeer events. The director found the old recipe in her files and mailed it to Porter.
"She gave me a piece of my grandparents," Porter said. "It was like the universe saying, 'Tara Porter, you were meant to be at Compeer.'"
Porter went to work with Compeer a few weeks later, in May 2016. The director retired four months later, after grooming Porter to take her place.
Compeer volunteer mentors serve two groups: Adults and children participants aged 5 to 17. For more information, visit mhanc.com and click on the Compeer tab, or call Porter at 433-3780. The next monthly gathering is a picnic from 6 to 8 p.m. June 8 at Wilson-Tuscarora State Park.
Porter works in the Lockport office of the Mental Health Association in Niagara County. She and her husband, Jesse, have three children, Avery, 16, Almon, 10, and Arland, 5.
Q: How many folks are involved with Compeer in Niagara County?
We have 56 adult participants and 18 volunteers for the adult program, and 15 kids. The most common diagnoses that people have are anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and schizoaffective disorder. No matter what it is, it feels very isolating at times. These are conditions you don't shout from the rooftops ... so there’s a tendency to isolate. People want to be part of a group where they feel comfortable, that they can enjoy, that will prevent them from isolating.
We do a monthly event that everyone is invited to attend. We always serve a meal because we find it brings people together, and we try and do something to introduce people to new hobbies and activities. We teamed up with the Village of Lewiston Recreation Department recently. That was awesome. We've teamed up with the New York State Parks Department. We're teaming up with the Y to do archery in September.
Q: What does it take to volunteer?
Volunteers don't need to have a mental health diagnosis. If they do, that's great, too. It's being a peer in the sense that you're a fellow human being. You're not a professional. You're not a counselor. You're not a doctor. You're not a case worker. It’s all about fun, all about having a good time.
When we get a volunteer, we match them with participants so they can have that one-on-one friendship. We ask for four hours a month. It can be a combination of phone calls and in-person visits. A lot of times, people go well over those four hours.
Earlier, an adult participant joined and never came to anything, rarely answered phone calls. He couldn't get to activities because he can't drive and lives with elderly parents. Volunteers picked him up for the April event and he had a blast. When I talked to him afterward he said, "I want to let you know that Compeer changed my life. ... I owe you a hug when you see you. That was the first time I went out in seven years that wasn't a medical appointment." He used his money to finance a scooter to get around town. He thanked us for not giving up on him. The goal of Compeer is to improve the quality of life for somebody and that was definitely and improvement for him.
Q: What's the training like?
It goes over how to be a good friend, over some of the stigma stuff, a brief explanation about some of the diagnoses we serve, It's more about boundaries. A lot of the people we serve haven't necessarily had a healthy friendship before so they don't know things like you may not want to call your friends four times in one day.
Q: Your key priorities since starting?
Bringing more community awareness and hoping to add more volunteers. On the business side of things, updating forms and referral processes, increasing participation of the individuals served.
Q: You've been challenged by anxiety. Can you talk about your mental health journey?
I always felt I was a little out of place, something was a little off. I had wonderful parents [Daniel and Carol Halstead] who are still married and a really great upbringing. But I almost felt too aware of things, too aware of the world. My one best friend used to say, "Tara always looks like she has the weight of the world on her shoulders. I feel in the end, everybody struggles with that. I just struggle a little more.
I've been really lucky. I landed in the emergency room once because of a panic attack I couldn't get under control. I was probably around 21. Other than that, I have that high-functioning anxiety which presents itself as an internal locus of control that forces me into achievement. A lot of my calming techniques are cleaning. Cleaning off the dining room table gives me instant gratification. It totally calms me. When everything has a place and everything's in its place, I feel so, so good. I've been lucky to look at, research and understand articles about anxiety. I can more easily implement the information that's given to me.
Q: How do you address anxiety with lifestyle changes?
Knowing myself. Being more aware. We have a family motto – "Happy, Healthy, Safe" – and that's what we focus on. Making big changes in who I surround myself with is a really big piece of it. We've had to cut ties with friends because my anxiety wants me to always achieve and please. Sometimes my communication can come across strongly. I constantly need this affirmation – I'm doing this right, right? – and some people have learned how to take advantage of that. They know Tara will say yes. It's that need to achieve and please, and fit in. I feel like everybody has that but with my anxiety, it makes it that much more.
Q: What do you wish more people understood about mental illness?
I think acceptance is key. If you have a mental health diagnosis yourself, accepting that it is a part of your life – not your whole life – really sets the tone. Once you've accepted it, you can find treatment, services, and support – like the Compeer Niagara program. Acceptance won't eliminate hope. It will fuel it.
Acceptance is just as important for those without a diagnosis. Accepting that a mental illness is part of someone's life allows you to become a positive factor in all sorts of ways.