Several years ago, Mark Pasquini of South Dennis approached Cape Abilities, a nonprofit organization that creates opportunities for individuals with disabilities on Cape Cod, and asked if he could become a friend or mentor to one of its participants “in a one-on-one role.”
Pasquini “wanted to do something bigger than myself, and through my friendship add some richness and varied experiences to the life of an individual with disabilities,” Pasquini said in a recent email interview. That’s how he was matched with an elderly man living in one of Cape Abilities’ 15 group homes. Soon, a strong friendship developed between the two men.
For two years, Pasquini met with his new friend once a week. “We did many things together – from Cape Cod baseball games, shopping for supplies at the local hardware store, recycling bottles and cans, ice cream at Cape Cod Creamery, and always listening to the old standards which we both loved. I did not have any expectations when I entered the friendship; my goal was to be a good friend, offer some interesting and maybe unique experiences, and provide the companionship of my trusty golden retriever.”
And he never dreamed how much the relationship would mean to him. “The friendship enriched my life, and I hope his as well,” he says. “Friends give to each other, often in different ways, and what we give and what we receive is a great value to each of us.”
Pasquini notes that while many individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities have great support systems, they are often in the form of professional staff, family members and others with disabilities.
“Growing authentic, impactful friendships is often difficult for people with disabilities,” he says. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit with its attendant shut-downs in March 2020, social isolation became a problem for everyone that was even worse within the disabled community.
Pasquini approached Ellen Marx Zeyen, Cape Abilities manager of volunteer and community partnerships, with his idea of expanding his one-on-one friendship to a formal program that would allow others to befriend people with disabilities.
And so the new program, Growing Friendships, was born. The program seeks to foster connections in part to help combat the stress caused by COVID-19 isolation. It is no surprise that significantly higher levels of stress were reported by the American Psychological Associations in 2020 than in previous years. Growing Friendships is funded in part through the Massachusetts Service Alliance (MSA) COVID-19 Resiliency Grant Initiative.
“We aim to combat isolation, increase inclusion, foster friendships between people of all abilities, and just have fun,” Zeyen says. “Simultaneously, we receive applications from volunteers who have heard about the program, or we recruit specifically to try to find someone who will ‘match’ with our participant. Volunteers undergo quite an extensive screening, onboarding and training process, including background checks, fingerprinting, a Zoom orientation, and completion of online training courses similar to training given to Cape Abilities staff, on subjects such as Human Rights and HIPAA. Once these steps are complete, we can consider that volunteer as a potential match for one of our participants.”
So far, the program has matched six volunteers to participants, and others are on a list of pending applicants. While the volunteers and partners introduced themselves to each other via Zoom, “we are hopeful to begin face to face relationships in the near future,” Pasquini says.
Zeyen cites one successful match between two young men in their 20s and 30s which “has been a big hit so far. They have gone bowling and are going to build and plant a raised garden bed together.” The participant works at the Cape Abilities farm on Route 6A in Dennis, and the volunteer will begin helping out there as well so they can spend more time together. “They are both sporty and are planning on training together for the Special Olympics. We love that they are interacting just as friends, doing lots of different things together, and sharing their passions.”
To foster the program, Zeyen is in contact with Cape Abilities managers and directors who suggest names of participants who might be interested or could benefit from the Growing Friendships program. She also reaches out to parents, guardians, caregivers and/or case managers to ascertain if the person would be a good fit for the program. Participants then apply.
Meanwhile, volunteers also apply, sharing their hobbies, interests and life goals. If they have “a love of animals or a passion for electronics,” that’s also relevant, Zeyen says.
“We interview all participants, with their caregivers, parents and/or guardians, and are in touch with Cape Abilities staff to be sure we are fully informed about that person’s situation, and we do the same with our volunteers,” she says. “We assess personality type, age, expectations, location, interests, hobbies, life goals.” Then the matches are made. Some are close in age, others create more of a big brother/big sister relationship.
If you’d like to join the Growing Friendships program, contact Zeyen at email@example.com. For more information on Cape Abilities, visit www.capeabilities.org.