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It's time to bring people together

More than ever this week seems to be about bringing people together rather than worrying about our own individual concerns, about celebrating what we have in common rather than that which divides us.

As one of my local election candidates said ‘We are opponents not enemies’ or another ‘he’s wrong, but he’s still a nice guy’. 

As founder of Coffee Companions I was privileged to go the launch of the film ‘Lorna’ by the Marmalade Trust on Tuesday evening – a powerful short portrayal of how a lack of social contact can impact someone, how the little things can make a big difference and how someone can put a brave public face on their private misery. The Marmalade Trust were launching Loneliness Awareness Week which should make us all think about those that might like a simple smile or ‘Hello’ as well as our ensuring we value our own connections.

National Carers week is a good chance to think of those that might have become isolated because of their caring responsibilities – could you offer to go and sit with a neighbours loved one so that they can get out for a short break, or see whether you can add a pint of milk for them to your own shopping list? 

National Care Home Open day is a chance to connect with the professional care sector and see the great work that they do. It is worth noting that around 1 in 5 people are growing old without children to support or visit them – maybe today is the day to say Hello to residents that don’t normally get visitors or take a neighbour to visit a friend they haven’t seen in a while. 

For those that prefer to keep things close to home this weekend is of course Fathers Day with the chance to celebrate being part of a family. You may prefer to join with other fathers and the wider community for the Great Get Together. The Big Lunch run by Eden Communities has this year linked with the Jo Cox Foundation to suggest people get together with neighbours to share food and good company following the anniversary of Jo’s murder. Jo has become increasingly remembered, thanks to her husband Brendan (and father to their two children), for celebrating what we have in common rather than that which divides us. The Great Get Together, or a Big Iftar, provides an opportunity for celebration and creating some new connections – new connections build healthy communities – the vision of Coffee Companions.
 

What are people saying about Coffee Companions?

As founder of Coffee Companions I was really delighted to be able to see the culimination of the hard work that has been done by Mandy Greenwood and her team to launch Coffee Companions on a very windy day in Gillingham this weekend.

Having visited most of the locations that are offering Companions Hours and spoken to so many different people I wonder whether Gillingham is on the way to being the friendliest community in the country!

Whilst I was in Gillingham I had many conversations that repeated themes I have heard elsewhere or thoughts that I have had and this blog is intended to summarise some of them.

 "Such a simple idea!"

Belinda Ridout, Mayor of Gillingham, did an opening speech that included the words ‘Very often it is the simple ideas that are the most effective!’ Starting with a cup of coffee….. it gives people an opportunity to be near people who can offer friendship and it is entirely up to the individual to make that choice by use of these simple but clever ‘Chat Mats’.   For use anywhere, at any time - on the train, at home, in a café, at work or during the ‘Companions Hours’ held at locations all over the town. 

"It’s not for me, I’ll talk to anyone!"

The challenge is that none of us our mindreaders. When we sit down to have a cup of coffee we may be by ourselves waiting for a friend, having a break on a long journey, taking a rest from looking after the children or just wandering around trying to escape the four walls that are our home. No one knows. Even when you have a green Chat Mat on your table another person wont know if that is because you are lonely or because you ‘will talk to anyone’ but it gives people ‘permission’ to sit down and ‘Say Hello’.

"But I don’t drink coffee."

Ok, so maybe the name is misleading – we really don’t mind whether people start a conversation over a cup of coffee, a pint of beer, or a glass of orange squash. Indeed I know of one gentleman who goes along to a Companions Hour and has a glass of water. The idea is that it should be easy to arrange as the café is already there, that you don’t need to commit a specific time, or even lots of time – a drink is quicker than a meal especially for a first conversation and indeed where it might be difficult to join someone part way through a meal its easy to join in part way through a drink. What is important is starting the conversation. Just start by saying hello.

"How do we spread the word?"

Almost without exception people say this is a good and simple idea but how do we tell everyone about it? As I had the conversations with people while handing out Chat Mats in the street there were plenty of suggestions:

  • ‘There are lots of us who catch the bus and sometimes have a bit of time to fill. There’s a coffee shop right by one of the bus stops – I will take some Chat Mats for some of the others to use there.’
  • ‘We don’t have this where I live – I wish we did. With all the funding cuts I cant believe our Health and Wellbeing board wouldn’t want to give this a go.’
  • ‘I go to a senior citizens club perhaps someone could come along to tell us more so that we have a way to meet up outside of the club hours.’

Coffee Companions features in the news!

Both Newbury Today and Somerset Live feature pieces on Chat Mats and Companions Hours

Read the full Newbury Today piece at http://www.newburytoday.co.uk/news/news/21383/benyon-boost-for-newbury-companions-hour.html and the Somerset Live piece at http://www.somersetlive.co.uk/news/local-news/gillingham-chat-mats-launch-60483.

Building closer communities

We are loving Brendan Cox’s idea of a one hour general election truce as a time to pay tribute to the many groups working to build and unite communities for so many reasons:

-          It’s a general election truce! One whole hour without any bickering or cross words. Something we could all do, perhaps something we could all do every week. Sharing different points of view helps us to shape our own ideas and values – it can be a discussion, it doesn’t need to be an argument.

-          There are so many unsung heroes doing jobs that the rest of us take for granted, in our voluntary organisations, and in our communities and families, that we should take time to think of them and thank them.

-          One of the cornerstones of the Jo Cox Foundation is the principle that ‘we have more in common than that which divides us’. We would love to see more people talking to their neighbours to find out what they have in common – failing that a simple ‘Hello’ would be a great start.

-          Sadly Brendan is right that we seem to need ‘an excuse’ to reach out and bring our communities together. At the launch of the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness Laura Alcock-Ferguson said we seem to need ‘permission’ to say Hello. Wearing a ‘Happy to Chat’ badge from the Jo Cox Foundation or using one of our Chat Mats will perhaps give people that ‘excuse’ or ‘permission’ more frequently.

So, this 21st May, take an hour to connect with someone new or at least say Hello. 

Find a port in the storm this Mental Health Awareness Week

The mission of Coffee companions is to create connections, building healthy communities, by letting others know when their company would be welcome starting with a cup of coffee.

In this context ‘healthy communities’ is deliberately ambiguous as it can mean physical, social or emotional health, or it can mean all three, given that they can all be interconnected. As well as the individual it can also mean the community itself.

In this week of Mental Health Awareness, it is worth reflecting that like the weather, mental health affects all of us all of the time. With the weather we can make sure we are dressed appropriately, have an umbrella with us just in case, or make sure we have applied sun cream. With our mental health, we may need specific help in the form of medication or therapy. However, all of us can be better prepared for whatever life throws at us if we have stronger social connections.

Coping with mental challenges and bad weather is easier if we know where to find a port in the storm.

Why we exist, and why we want you to get involved

Coffee Companions was set up with the needs of our communities, and the individuals within them, in mind.

With people leading such ‘busy’ lives and with an ever increasing focus on the technology in our hands it feels like we no longer either know, or have an interest in knowing, those sitting or living next to us. Whether we live in a block of flats or a house we tend to retreat behind our doors to do our own thing. By not saying Hello to our neighbours we are missing so much – someone to babysit, knowing who could lend us a drill, ideas about which film to watch, best place to learn to knit and every other gap we have in our ability or knowledge that someone else can help us resolve. If we only take the time to talk we can make so much time to do what we really enjoy.

Highlights from our recent Coffee Companions conversations

As I spread the word about Coffee Companions I am troubled by the number of people who seem resigned to being in their own world without the benefits that connection can bring. Every conversation I have had has been rewarding and I believe has left the other person/people feeling the same.

I hope that the following snippets of conversations from the last couple of weeks will inspire others to start seeing what they can find out about their community and the individuals within it.

- Two occasional visitors to the town knew about the theatre but not the alternative arts venue. They in turn told me that a tea shop I walk past most days is also a noodle bar.

- A lady that regularly takes boating holidays on the canal warned me that being tall, the biggest challenge I would face was fitting into the toilets!

- A lady waiting for her husband to finish his language class told me all about the local language school, the range of languages they teach and how they teach adults and children alike through fun games.

- Having taken some excess rhubarb to a regular Companions Hour I was given some new ideas of how to use it.

- Last but not least there have been people that have so fully engaged with the concept during our conversation that they have asked to take a handful of Chat Mats away with them to share with friends and colleagues – at the WI, through the library, in the office, via their daughter’s care home, on the bus, or with their local coffee shop in their home town.

Over time more people will realise that there is a solution to the fact that we aren’t mind readers and how much fun it can be to connect with others ‘in real life’. In the meantime I am delighted to report that there is a great world out there, maybe just outside your front door, waiting to be discovered. 

Coffee Companions in Gillingham featured in Blackmore Vale magazine!

The article features details on the work of a great group in Gillingham all aiming to create contacts and build communities.

Read more at http://www.blackmorevale.co.uk/coffee-companions-new-social-enterprise-in-gillingham/story-30262763-detail/story.html#ZiUYDkBVV6zbM0u2.99


Coffee Companions featured in Newbury Today!

You can read all about the Companion's Hours taking place in Newbury this week.

Read the full article at http://www.newburytoday.co.uk/news/home/21114/coffee-shops-join-initiative-to-get-people-talking.html



Expect the unexpected

Coffee Companions was established to create connections, building healthy communities, by letting others know when their company would be welcome – starting with a cup of coffee. But it turns out to have so many more applications than I had originally thought and I dare say there will be more to come!

Chat Mats are intended for anyone, anywhere at any time. I had foreseen their use in large staff canteens to help new members of staff identify where they could start making friends or for those that are working/meeting over lunch to indicate they don’t want to be disturbed. I hadn’t expected how many people would welcome the chance to put a Chat Mat on their desk – maybe in these days of open plan offices and hot desking, and no door to close, I should have.

I had envisaged that some of the funding of the initiative might come from locations wanting to brand the Chat Mats in their venues. However, it seems that others also see the marketing potential and the ability to be seen to be encouraging a sense of community whilst getting their name in front of a public audience.

Companions Hours were always intended to provide a time when you are more likely to find people gathered in one place looking for a chat. I had not expected that they would always have a host in attendance (and they don’t) but what I hadn’t thought about was the amount of pleasure ‘hosting’ can provide to the staff involved and how, if prompts are needed to keep the conversation flowing (which they often aren’t), this can include a chance to get feedback on issues and initiatives.

Whilst at this stage most people are mostly using the green side (after all our culture is such that no mat = no chat, but hopefully this will change) there are those that love the idea of being able to go to a new place/environment but use the red side so that they will be left in peace to observe what goes on and to build their confidence before using the green side.