Freestyle Volunteering

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Judy Lightfoot, PhD
Freestyle Volunteer

Adults who are marginalized because they're homeless or because they have a disability such as chronic mental illness are among the loneliest people in society. The great majority are ambulatory, articulate, and in other respects able to welcome and enjoy a wider social life, but we walk past them as if they were invisible. This isolation exacerbates existing problems and generates new ones.


Social services are diminishing, foundation budgets are shrinking because of the economic decline, and philanthropists are writing fewer checks. Religious organizations provide human services through their ongoing missions, but the need is far greater already than can be met, and is expanding.

The only way to fill the widening gap will be for individuals to step in. But many are reluctant to make individual contact with people in need, even when these people are visibly walking around us in public life, if on the fringes.


The goal is to connect with a person who is homeless or who has a disability such as chronic mental illness, and to meet once a week for conversation with that person at a cafe'. Freestyle volunteers don't need to accumulate specialized information about the causes of and cures for the condition that a person is in, or about resources that might be available. Their purpose isn't to try to change the person's life, just to sit and listen and talk for an hour. Separately the meetings may seem trivial, but for someone who has no companions living relatively secure, connected lives, these hours of interested attention add up.

Freestyle volunteers appreciate the simple, self-contained nature of assigning themselves, based on their own personal schedules, a weekly hour for simply buying coffee for a chosen person and sitting down for conversation. It's a valuable contribution that requires no training to offer: almost all of us are already well equipped for it.

Potential volunteers who are already extremely busy - raising a family, working full time, booked solid with nonprofit board and committee duties, etc. - have limited time available for finding a person to benefit from their freestyle-volunteering. But for those who have a little time for the task, connecting with someone out there in need of companionship isn't difficult. My one-on-one connections develop easily and naturally from volunteering where people living marginal or solitary lives are served in person.

While volunteering at the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Greater Seattle, I met Hiro, a man with PTSD, panic disorder, and social phobia, with whom I've had weekly coffee for a year and a half . Last summer I met George, a man living with paranoid schizophrenia, with whom I still have coffee every week. People needing companionship are also easy to meet through volunteering at feeding kitchens and day centers for homeless people.

On my own I've gone for coffee with different residents of Seattle's newest tent city (campers call it Nickelsville to tweak Seattle's mayor Greg Nickels, who is actually doing a lot to end homelessness). I came to know many residents after they pitched their 90 tents in a nearby church parking lot, by driving them to and from free showers at a community center - towel rental: 50 cents apiece, if the supply of bath towels in my trunk ran short. (The tent city's rigorous background checks and zero-tolerance prohibitions against drugs, alcohol, and weapons made me feel safe driving these campers in my car.)

I've run into individuals begging on the streets whom I've felt quite comfortable accompanying into a cafe' or fast-food joint. Of course, I avoid anyone transmitting even the faintest vibe of menace, and my freestyle volunteer hours are always during the day. Trust your instincts.

Freestyle volunteering is a way of saying Yes to life and humanity. Years ago Professor Peter Elbow wrote about two ways in which we learn, calling them the Doubting Game and the Believing Game. Both are important. In the Doubting Game, you're hot on the trail of error. You use the skeptic's tools to detect whatever might be wrong with a new thing presented, subjecting it to rigorous tests of logic, reason, and empirical experiment. In the Believing Game, you seek everything that could be right, good, or useful in the new thing. You open yourself to it, enter into it fully, and imagine ways in which it might be true.

The Doubting Game helps us reject harmful or mistaken notions. But higher education in the Western world since Descartes has privileged skepticism, teaching the Doubting Game as the smart way, the really cool way, of thinking. Even if skepticism doesn't always lead to cynicism, it reinforces the broad human tendency to think No instead of Yes in response to ideas and people that don't fit our familiar mental frameworks. For many people, to start taking a lonely person who is homeless or isolated by mental illness out for coffee once a week, it may be necessary to play the Believing Game with the idea first.

It's important to set clear limits for these meetings so that your anxiety doesn't get in the way of arranging them in the first place. And once they're under way, such limits are essential to keep exhaustion - moral or physical - from burning you out. Each of my meetings with George is just one hour long. I don't encourage Benjamin's addiction. And I don't say Yes to everyone who seems to need companionship. But when I say Yes to one, I'm hoping somebody else is saying Yes to one I don't have time for.

As stated above, the purpose of freestyle volunteering and coffee companionship isn't to solve someone's problems. It's to affirm the dignity and humanity of a person who has been placed outside the social circle of "normal" or "acceptable."

Still, here are examples of progress or benefits:

After a year and a half of my coffee meetings with Hiro, his family told me he's increasingly sociable and communicative. Last week he stood in front of people at a memorial service for his brother to make a speech, which would have been unthinkable a year ago. Hiro also used to saddle himself with two enormous satchels of possessions and papers that he carried everywhere even though he's elderly and frail. Now he carries just one. Perhaps through engaging with someone who isn't a caregiver or fellow client, and who thus can help him access an inner selfhood long buried under the "mental case" label, he doesn't have to carry so much of his sense of self around in a bag.

For 12 years George has taken his anti-psychotic medications and heeded his caregivers in the public system, so he doesn't need me to strengthen his commitment to treatment. But he's enthusiastic and grateful when we meet, and a month ago he told me he's taking better care of himself since starting our weekly coffees last summer - he gets more sleep, and he stretches before the gym workouts he has always loved. My husband remarks that when George calls each week to confirm a meeting time, he sounds more focused, direct, and natural than before.

I've grown, too. I’m more aware and accepting of the astonishing variety of persons in my world, as well as more patient with friends, family, bad drivers, you name it. And life is sweeter. A regular coffee date with a fellow human being is one of the things-I-do-instead-of-going-shopping that makes me truly happy.


A simple, inexpensive, grassroots, broad-based, joyful way of addressing the widespread problem of loneliness at society's margins is with Coffee Companionship via Freestyle Volunteering: Each individual leading a relatively connected, stable life chooses ONE adult who is not, to have ONE hour of coffee and conversation with at a cafe' every week.

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