A new regular social group, designed to address isolation, will launch next month in Shaftesbury.
ThisIsAlfred’s Keri Jones met with its local coordinator to find out more.
Mandy Greenwood has the best job title of any volunteer in the Shaftesbury area. “My official title is ‘chat champion’,” she laughed, as she explained her position with social enterprise Coffee Companions.
It is a fantastic title and most of us would know people who would fit that voluntary job description. Mandy likes it. “One of my childhood nicknames was chatterbox, so I feel I’ve come full circle now,” laughed Mandy. “I used to be a speech and language therapist, so it feels rather good to be a chat champion.”
Coffee Companions is coming to Shaftesbury in June. The organisation’s national website describes it as a ‘micro social enterprise’. It aims to reduce loneliness and encourage social inclusion by using existing coffee shops to help people make connections.
The group launched Companions Hours – regular meetings in public cafés – three years ago at Newbury in Berkshire. “That’s really where it started, and it still continues. Then two years ago, we launched in Gillingham,” said Mandy. A Shaftesbury resident, who was aware of the events down the road, requested a branch here.
Caroline Billington founded Coffee Companions because she wanted to create a place where people could forge new friendships. “It grew out of a concern about the epidemic of loneliness and social isolation that’s being reported around the country and particular concern for elderly people,” said Mandy.
She explained that the organisation came up with a model that could be rolled out into different communities, “just simply to bring people together over a drink, a cup of coffee, a cup of tea, a pint of beer and to start feeling more a part of their community as a result.”
The sessions are not like the Memory Cafés in Shaftesbury, where there is an emphasis on supporting people with Alzheimer’s. Coffee Companions is a social network. “It’s not for anyone in a particular category or age group. And there are not going to be experts there, who will be looking for those sorts of categories,” Mandy said.
Mandy’s experiences in Gillingham have taught her that the group works well if people reveal their interests at the start of the sessions. That helps break the ice as likeminded attendees can strike up a conversation about their shared passions. “People have discovered they’ve got similar interests to somebody else who’s there, or somebody knows about events or organisations that they’d like to be part of. Or it’s just an opportunity to let off a bit of steam, sit and listen to other people chatting or just have some company,” said Mandy.
For many residents, attending a group where you don’t know anyone can be intimidating. Not everybody has ‘small talk’ skills. “A lot of people do struggle with that,” accepts Mandy, who suggests bringing a friend along. But she says it’s also ok just to sit and observe the conversation during the hour. “There are no expectations because they are so informal. People can come and just be on the edge of things, and other people will pick up if they don’t want to join in the conversation,” Mandy says.
The Coffee Companions events use double-sided ‘chat mats’ to put people at their ease if they don’t want to converse with the group immediately. “On one side it says ‘hello’. And on the other, it says ‘not today, maybe another time’. So if somebody genuinely is feeling they cannot join in a conversation, and that could be for a multitude of reasons, they’re more than welcome to use the chat mat to indicate that. People will understand that they want to be part of the group but they don’t really want to join in the conversation.”
Mandy says the Companions Hours mainly attract older residents in Gillingham. “That’s partly because they are during working hours. There are lots of retired people, but some others as well.”
All of the Shaftesbury sessions will be in the afternoons, at least initially. “They are all going to be 2.30pm to 3.30pm. We’re going to try and ensure that there are at least one or two other people who will definitely be there, so you shouldn’t turn up and find that you’re on your own,” said Mandy. “The venue staff will mention that there is a Companions Hour happening, and they will indicate where the table is that they have set aside for the Companions Hour. People can just go and sit at that table and pick up where they want to with the others there. If you don’t want to stay for an hour, that’s absolutely fine. It’s a regular café session so you can come in at any point during the hour and you can go away at any point during the hour.”
Of course, this is not a dating agency and Mandy says group members should feel that they can steer discussions away from any improper topics. “The only thing that the initiative can do is make the hosts aware to listen out for people disclosing inappropriate details, like financial details or their address. After that, it’s up to the usual social rules applying, where somebody might intervene if they think something inappropriate is being said.”
Mandy says the new Shaftesbury group will benefit from some tweaks they have made following their experiences in Gillingham. “I think we had too many venues, so people could have a choice of seven venues every week. But of course, then you got many fewer people at each venue and it was also difficult for those venues to host it. So, what we’ve ensured now is that there will be people there in a hosting role, but just as companions, to join in the conversation like everybody else.”
Each of the three Gillingham groups attracts around eight people per session but the numbers do fluctuate. “What we do find is that some people come every week for a long time, and others come for a while, maybe put down a few different roots and get busy with other things as well.”
The first Shaftesbury event is on Monday 10th June, at the John Peel Café on the High Street, from 2.30pm. The following session will be Friday 14th June at the Rising Sun from 2.30pm.
Of course, there will be people who are lonely because they have moved into Shaftesbury and drive away for work during the day, only to return to an empty flat or house at night. Mandy says there is potential for after-work events. “We tried a bar and a pub in Gillingham in the evening and they didn’t attract people. I think there is a really big place for it, for working people, and perhaps without being too gender-stereotyped, more men would enjoy maybe a pub or a bar. I think if anybody sees an opportunity for that we will go for it,” she said.
If you want to get involved, all you need to do is go along. “You just turn up and join in. We are starting to put advertising on posters and flyers and on Facebook. That gives contact details for each venue, if there’s anything you particularly want to ask about that venue,” Mandy said.