Imagine what it would be like not having the ability to speak to another person for long periods of time. Living alone, staring out the window wishing you felt safe and comfortable reentering a community living in a pandemic. Social distancing, quarantine and isolation all reduce the physical contact people have with others. Breaking barriers while wearing a mask, having a hard time recognizing those who six months ago were friendly neighbors and friends. Desperately looking for someone to talk to but not having family to call or having minutes on your phone can lead to feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. Social interactions and activities are vital to maintain mental health and an overall sense of well-being. We all have times in our lives when we feel lonely but now this loneliness is not a choice but a reality forced on us by the pandemic.

Immediate effects of social isolation have already been well documented. Suddenly there are many more stories of men and women who face great uncertainty, worry about rent, and whether there will be food that day. People are worried about losing their jobs, homes and connections. All of our guests understood those worries prior to COVID. According to the American Medical Association, there have been surges in mental health concerns, substance abuse, and domestic violence incidents. In addition, studies show an increase in troubling health behaviors, including substance use and more than two million Americans purchased guns during the month of March, according to federal data. This raises obvious concerns for increased risk of suicide, making opportunities for social connections even more critical.

Our guests are among the most vulnerable in our community and were unanchored without The Gathering Place. “I live alone and have no family, and usually don’t think about it,” says  a longtime TGP guest. “But, I feel lonely. I miss seeing my friends at the Gathering.”The Gathering Place is open Monday, Wednesday (soon), Thursday and each day we are lucky to see more and more familiar faces.”

“I miss my friends at The Gathering Place,” says a longtime volunteer. “I am returning as a volunteer because I need to be with people, talk to them, help them and give hugs, even if they are air hugs.”How do we help those in our community who are suffering this loss of companionship and connection? The answer is The Gathering Place. Being with trusted others means safety for so many of us and the first step is being a listening presence.”

Since opening in June I have found companionship and socialization to be the most important programs we offer. We talk through issues; learning from each other; being encouraged, corrected and motivated by those around us. All done while masked and social distanced. The joy that exudes from our outside coffee “pavilion” is contagious. I have spent wonderful hours learning about several of our guests. People are more willing to share and I am so grateful. Each morning we are greeted by a long-time guest who turns out is an expert on Maine history. He formerly worked at the Library of Congress and took his penchant for family history and great fun facts and shares so much with all who are lucky enough to join in the conversation.

For all the joy and laughter found at TGP, there is also grief. Sadly, The Gathering Place said goodbye to a longtime friend last Friday, Chris Brawn, a wonderful guest and volunteer of the Gathering Place. “Chris’s sudden passing was especially painful for us not just because we have no idea how or why he died but because he was young, vibrant, and full of love and caring,” said Phil Studwell. Because of COVID restrictions, the service was offered on Facebook live instead of at The Gathering Place which has been a long-standing tradition. Saying goodbye and sharing stories now has to be done via messaging but the compassion and heartfelt words shared by Phil Studwell, Chick Carroll and George Hardy made us all feel grateful that we are part of a community of people who really care for one another. Phil said in his eulogy, “Chris was an incredibly hard worker. He gave off the feeling like he was doing it for you as his gift. That’s who he was, he was sending you a message he cared about you and was thanking you for just being you. He’d give you the shirt off his back if you needed it and anything else you needed.”

Being together at The Gathering Place lifts all of our spirits and brings out “the better angels of our nature.” As the weather gets colder and people are forced indoors and connected less, reach out to your neighbor and say hello. Write a note to someone you love and let them know you are thinking about them. Come to the Gathering Place and have a cup of coffee, and remember that we are better together. You will never know how much your kind words and caring will mean to somebody.

Mary Connolly is the executive director of The Gathering Place. Giving Voice is a weekly collaboration among four local non-profit service agencies to share information and stories about their work in the community. 

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