Coffee Companions

Coffee Companions is a micro social enterprise that was set up in the context of reducing loneliness and isolation by using existing infrastructure (coffee shops etc) to help people make connections on either an ad hoc basis using Chat Mats or by attending regular Companions Hours. In the last three years there has been an increasing awareness of the lack of connections in our society and a number of new groups set up in addition to the successful Companions Hours being run by the locations listed on the Coffee Companions website.

Coffee Companions continues to be unique with its Chat Mat offer which will continue to be available but it seems the time is right for the organisation to scale back and as such we will not be engaging via Facebook or Twitter or posting blogs on a regular basis. However, we always love to hear from anyone wanting to find out more or tell us their stories.

Should we have to legislate common courtesy?

A smile, a wave, a knock on a neighbour’s door and a chat. All things that cost nothing at all to do, all things that make a huge difference in people’s lives and all things that most of us don’t do nearly enough.

If you’re always busy, have a hectic family life or just spend your days in offices full of co-workers, it’s hard to get your head around just how destructive isolation can be. We’ve seen the research, we’ve met the people, but telling you about them with a list of facts and figures won’t make the picture clear. Instead, you have to imagine a life where your health is suffering, the television is your main source of company, and where you could go more than a month without speaking to family or friends.

15 years ago, any time spent in a pub or restaurant meant your clothes stank of smoke and you’d wake up with a cough. If you think back five years a walk in the park meant wading through poo because dog owners hadn’t cleaned up after their pets.

Now, dog owners are given an on the spot fine for flouting the rules, and smokers are not allowed to smoke indoors. And in both cases, this is just the legal enforcement of common courtesy – its a shame that it is required, but its largely worked.

Do we need legislation to tackle social isolation? Clearly it would be ridiculous to have a law to force everyone to wave hello to a neighbour. But, if you take a minute to breathe clean air in your local pub, or you manage to get through your public green space without having to clean your shoes, you realise just how far a simple act can go. The value of a friendly face can be so high, so start doing simple things today, and #sayhello.

Learn more about upcoming Companions Hours!

Will you be coming along on the week of 21st August?

Join our mailing list to find out more.

or download our disposable Chat Mats (including money of vouchers) for Newbury and Thatcham.

Upcoming Companions Hours are as follows:

Coffee #1, Parkway Newbury – Monday 21st August 2017 – 3-4pm

Empire Cafe, Cheap Street, Newbury – Tuesday 22nd August 2017 – 10.30-11.30am

Kings Cafe, The Broadway, Newbury – Wednesday 23rd August 2017 – 3-4pm

McDonalds, Northbrook Street – Thursday 24th August 2017 – 6-7pm

Courtyard Cafe, The Broadway, Thatcham – Wednesday 23rd August 2017 – 2.30-3.30pm

Pineapple Cafe, Lower Way, Thatcham – Thursday 24th August 2017 – 3-4pm

We had to share this story…

This morning I needed a break from my computer and went and had coffee in a café so that I could do some work and observe how things were going in participating coffee shops at the same time.

A gentleman had asked one of the staff if Companions Hour was definitely happening and they pointed him towards me to check. We got to talking more widely about his circumstances and how lonely he was and he felt he could ‘really benefit from coming along’. I talked to him for a bit longer and he apologised for holding me up and taking up my time. My response was, ‘Not at all, you’re reminding why I do what I do – its really helpful’ – that was when he started to weep. We hear so much about the importance of making people feel valued and that simple comment from me had a profound impact on him.

There was lots of other potential learning from my visit but I hope this will inspire you to join us in tackling isolation – helping one starfish at a time.

Fish and friends

Some time ago someone told me how they describe the difference between befriending and being a friend.

We tend to talk about ‘befriending some one’ – its something we do ‘to’ them, we do it as a volunteer and generally with prescribed regularity. The volunteer can choose to stop at any time whereas the ‘client’ is expected to be grateful for the time and generally doesn’t have the choice about stopping the relationship.
On the other hand we talk about being a friend ‘with’ someone – its an equal partnership with both agreeing how often they meet and to do what.

Many agencies match befrienders to clients so that they are more like friends, but the dependency on someone managing the relationship is still there and we don’t underestimate the importance of this for some people.

However for some people providing the tools to help them find their own friends can be more effective in the long term – we think of it as being like the difference between providing fish to a hungry person or helping them to learn to fish to solve the problem in the longer term. Yes, it may be more difficult in the short term but the long term benefits can be huge. A Chat Mat can be that tool which a befriender may help someone learn to use. It can be an offer of friendship, a request for friendship, a way of communicating whether you are hungry for company or have an abundance to offer.

A new take on the Starfish Story

Regular readers will know that our vision of creating contacts, building communities, by letting others know when their company would be welcome can be compared to the Starfish Story.

Read the story here, and catch up on some thoughts below on how to make it even more relevant to Coffee Companions and your lives:

Helping get the Starfish back in the see as soon as possible is more important than ever in extreme heat (or cold) – check on a neighbour.
The more people there are helping to save the Starfish the less there is for each individual to do – we can all say hello to someone even if it involves picking up the phone.
The more people there are helping to save the Starfish the less daunting the task ahead – a problem shared is a problem halved.
Once you know how to help a Starfish it gets easier and easier to make a difference – see if you can find a new person to share a hobby, skill or asset with.
Would you walk away from beach of stranded starfish or dolphins? Stand still for 2 mins before rushing past someone then smile at them.
Wouldn’t it be great if the starfish could help each other? Humans can but don’t – they must think we are mad.
If you were a starfish would you want someone to help you?
The starfish didn’t ask to be on the beach. Recent bereavement or redundancy, moving to a new job or home, being at home with a new baby or elderly relative are situations we can all face, sometimes unexpectedly.

Throwing thousands of starfish into the sea would be hard work and, given this doesn’t happen in my home town, I would have to find the money to travel and take the time to find them. Saying hello to a neighbour, smiling at a passer by, or picking up the phone to a friend I haven’t spoken to in a while is a much easier way to make a difference.

Gorillas and Chat Mats

Having written before about how easy ‘chat’ is to learn it’s time to recognise the one consistent challenge that speakers encounter – being ‘heard’.

Not only is a Chat Mat silent but its size is designed to fit into a pocket and placed on a table rather than be 6 foot tall and unmissable.

Watch this video and see if you would pass the test?

Didn’t see the gorilla? So how do we expect people to see a Chat Mat on a table? We could increase the size but we don’t want to embarrass people and even at 6 foot tall it appears people might not see it. We would like everyone to speak chat so a) it becomes normal then b) before sitting down everyone looks around for the green Chat Mat (unless they are seeking peace and want to go to their own table with a red Chat Mat of course). If we are looking for the Chat Mats we will see them and the new language will be fully integrated into our everyday ways of communicating.

One last thought, for those that think that making it big is the answer – we know of a location that is going to have one table that is permanently green – the place to go to say ‘hello’.

Vi parolas ‘babili’

Someone recently suggested that introducing the concept of Chat Mats is like introducing a new language or way of communicating.

The great news is that in reality it is much easier. If I am going on holiday I aim to learn a minimum of 6 words before I go (hello, goodbye, yes, no, please and thank you and maybe ‘do you speak english’) any more than that starts to need a full on language course of some kind. However, if you want to ‘chat’ it’s really simple: there are only 2 key phrases (say hello, not today), and you don’t have to memorise them or even learn how to say them – you simply put your Chat Mat on a table green or red side up.

However, using any language needs confidence and that is where practice either with a fellow speaker or at a class can help. There’s good news here too – that’s what Companions Hours are for. And it just gets better, if there isn’t one near you just set one up – unlike running a language class it requires no prior knowledge or special skills just a willingness to create connections for yourself and/or others. I’ve never yet needed to learn Esperanto but ‘chat’ has been dead easy and is understood by those that have never even come across it before.

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.’