Involvement, gratitude counter loneliness

 

Last updated 10/31/2023 at 9:33am

Photo by Sue Stafford

Citizens4Community hosted a forum on loneliness and social isolation featuring panelists who are working on this phenomenon from different perspectives: Schools Superintendent Curt Scholl; Sisters Park & Recreation District Executive Director Jennifer Holland; Sisters Community Church Pastor Steve Stratos; and Age Friendly Sisters board member Judy Smith.

Two points emerged from an exploration of the loneliness and isolation epidemic now impacting people across the nation, and here in Sisters and elsewhere: The most effective ways to counter these negative feelings are to get engaged in your community, and start your day with gratitude.

There seems to be general agreement, both locally and nationally, that loneliness and isolation are on the rise, particularly in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The U.S. Surgeon General has issued an advisory warning of the devastating impact of loneliness and isolation.

At the biannual community forum presented by Citizens4Community (C4C), "You Are Not Alone: Building Community in Sisters Country," attendees heard from a panel of local organizational leaders and moderator Scott Crabtree of Happy Brain Science, and were then able to ask questions and make comments for a broader dialog. The evening was devoted to exploring what isolation is, its causes, and what we as individuals and as a community can do about it.


Crabtree set the stage for the panelists with his opening comments, saying that social isolation impacts physical and mental health adversely. One of the best ways to counter that isolation is to get engaged in the community. Kellen Klein, interim executive director of C4C, has a list of over 80 nonprofits, service clubs, social groups, churches, and a variety of interest groups to choose from when looking for a way to get engaged. He can be reached at 541-203-0527 or [email protected].

According to Crabtree, getting socially rejected causes actual pain. We all have a fundamental human need for connection and relationship, which creates a boost in good feelings for both extroverts and introverts. If we have good-quality relations, we are happier, which leads to longer life. The quality of the connection is what makes the difference. As humans, we stand a better chance as a group than alone.


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Sisters School District superintendent Curt Scholl explained that a cornerstone for the District is building a sense of belonging for kids at every grade level, which is supported by staff, having 450 volunteers in the schools, and counselors in every school, and one Deschutes County mental health counselor available. Local option tax support allows for smaller class sizes, making it easier to build connections. Place-based learning engages students in their community, including their physical environment, local culture, history, and people. With place-based learning, students get to see the results of their work in their community.


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Place-based learning can take many forms, ranging from classroom visitors to inside-out schools, where the community becomes the school. Common approaches include incorporating field trips, community service, internships with local businesses, and other non-classroom activities.

At the middle school and high school there are Super Connector programs where 20 well-known students are trained to be mentors who work with other students to combat isolation and loneliness. Scholl stressed that happy students are generally more successful in school.

Jennifer Holland, executive director of Sisters Park & Recreation District (SPRD), is fairly new to Sisters and admitted to finding it difficult at first to "break in," until she finally began to connect with her neighbors. Her problem was solved by reaching out. Holland believes that loneliness shows up differently for everyone; there is no blanket approach that works for all. She does believe part of the problem is an increased lack of empathy in our society for others.


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Pastor Steve Stratos of Sisters Community Church said their church building is used by the community for all kinds of meetings and activities. He explained that one of the missions of the church is to reach into the community to help people have a relationship with God.

He believes humans are relational by nature, made in the image of God. Looking to the Bible, in the book of Genesis, isolation is found "in the beginning" where God says, "It is not good for man to be alone." Stratos views isolation as the result of brokenness in our world. Therefore, caring for people and cultivating community are most important.


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Judy Smith, president of the Age Friendly Sisters Country (AFSC) board, explained that her organization is a nonprofit that acts as a fiscal sponsor for individuals and organizations with good ideas for building community and breaking down barriers. They offer support to their Action Teams by providing insurance coverage, conducting background checks on volunteers, connecting with possible funding sources, and providing tax benefits by being able to accept donations for the Action Teams. Contact Smith is you have a good idea for building connections at [email protected].


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Sisters Transportation and Ride Share (STARS) was the original AFSC Action Team, begun just as the seriousness of COVID was being recognized. They provide an invaluable service by offering free transportation to non-emergency medical appointments in Sisters, Bend, and Redmond. Volunteer drivers help those with transportation needs while also alleviating isolation and loneliness for Sisters residents, many of whom are elderly and/or living alone. To obtain a ride call 541-904-5545 on Tuesday or Thursday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. To volunteer as a driver or dispatcher go to the STARS website at starsride.org.

The impact of COVID-19 was and still is felt throughout Sisters. Stratos indicated it created division on how to deal with it, while requiring congregants to communicate to find unity in their approach.


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Scholl reported significant learning loss during COVID and said the schools are still seeing social and emotional issues with some students. He stressed the importance of their co-curricular activities, with a 70-80 percent participation rate, since they eliminated required fees.

Sisters Middle School teacher Amy Guthrie announced that she has organized the Sunshine Club,s which will begin meeting November 17. Their purpose is to visit the residents at The Lodge assisted living facility on a regular basis to participate in intergenerational activities with the residents. If you would like to help by volunteering or providing financial support, contact Guthrie at [email protected].


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Holland said SPRD was able to maintain avenues for many of their kids' programs during COVID, but not for the older adults. She said recreation is all about building relationships. When programming for seniors was cut back during COVID, SPRD employees called seniors they knew were alone, to check in. They have an activities room for middle school students. Teams, day camps, exercise classes, all recreation programs, and senior programs are all about building connection.

The one group they are aware may be underserved are men in their 30s and 40s, but an audience member said he has found the disc golf course and bike track are great ways to meet other guys. Others suggested becoming a trail steward for the Sisters Trails Alliance, exercise outside with other people, becoming a mentor for Circle of Friends, and participating in intergenerational activities.

Smith reinforced the power of the telephone for reaching out and connecting with those who may feel isolated. When people call in to schedule a ride, the dispatchers are friendly voices who care.

Accessibility is a key feature when attempting to build community. C4C modeled, through the forum, ways to make events more accessible for more people. The forum was live streamed on Zoom with closed captioning and language translation provided. Interpretation services for the hearing impaired were available upon request. Rides to the event were available for those without transportation. For those who needed to secure care for a loved one in order to attend, there was a care reimbursement stipend available for parents and caregivers in attendance.

All the panel members and audience members who shared concurred that the best way to break out of feeling lonely and isolated is to reach out, volunteer, join activities, be a servant. If you are attending an event, going to a movie or a meeting, taking a walk, or going out to eat, invite someone to go with you. Additionally, practice gratitude and acceptance in your daily life.

Crabtree reinforced, "When we start the day with gratitude, it makes us happier, which creates a broader circle of ourselves, and therefore we're more willing to connect."

 

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