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.

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.

The Jo Cox Commission ‘Spotlight on Older People’

The Jo Cox Commission has a different focus each month and this week sees the launch of the ‘Spotlight on Older People’.

Jo Cox was passionate about tackling loneliness in our communities and the Commission will be working throughout 2017 to address the impact loneliness has on different sections of our society. More than 1.2 million older people are chronically lonely and this month is an opportunity to raise awareness and take action to change that. Jo Cox reminded us that we can all do something – as individuals and organisations – to help older people in our communities, so why not support the Commission and ‘start a conversation’ today, whether it’s your neighbour, a visit to an old friend, or just making time for others.

We hope that Chat Mats provide that opportunity for anyone, anywhere at any time but maybe a Companions Hour will provide a more focussed incentive for some with a suspended coffee helping ensure accessibility for all.

The fun I have had with my Chat Mat

As founder of Coffee Companions I clearly have to walk the walk and talk the talk and so, almost whenever I am in a public space, I use my Chat Mat – sometimes red side, sometimes green – and it feels good to have that choice.

Last weekend for example I was staying away from home for a course which meant I was in a hotel by myself. The course tutors had suggested taking time overnight to reflect on Saturdays work in preparation for the following day. So, while I had a drink and some supper in the hotel bar I had the Chat Mat red side up. Thank goodness! When a guy who I wouldn’t have wanted to talk to sat a couple of seats away eyeing me up I felt I had the perfect excuse for ignoring him – the warning was on the table.

On the flip side, only yesterday, I was sat outside a local café having just talked to them about Chat Mats. I had a green Chat Mat on the table because the sunshine was so lovely I wanted an excuse not to go back to the office. This was perfect – someone I know stopped when they saw me and we had a catch up. While we were doing that someone I had been trying to get hold of for ages walked past. As it turned out I got more done in that extra 20 minutes in the sun than if I had gone back to the office.

I have to travel by train reasonably frequently and have become aware that not all of them have tables for your drink let alone laptop or Chat Mat. However, about a month ago, I was on a train with a table in front of me and about to settle down to work. As I was thinking about getting my Chat Mat out and putting it red side up a lady and her granddaughter, aged about 9, sat down. I was fascinated! The young girl was reading a specially designed newspaper – a long conversation ensued which I wouldn’t have missed for the world. Thank goodness I had changed my mind at the last minute and put my Chat Mat green side up.

I often talk about the benefits of Chat Mats helping people to create contacts to start building healthier communities which is indeed my serious intention. However, the reality is that using a Chat Mat to control your social contact has endless unexpected benefits and can be a lot of fun!

The Starfish Story

Action makes a difference, no matter how small.

Once upon a time, there was an old man who had a habit of walking on the beach every morning. One morning, after a big storm had passed the beach was littered with starfish as far as the eye could see.

Off in the distance, the old man noticed a small boy approaching. As the boy walked, he paused every so often and as he grew closer, the man could see that he was occasionally bending down to pick up an object and throw it into the sea. The boy came closer still and the man called out, “Good morning! May I ask what it is that you are doing?”

The young boy paused, looked up, and replied “Throwing starfish into the ocean. The tide has washed them up onto the beach and they can’t return to the sea by themselves,” the youth replied. “When the sun gets high, they will die, unless I throw them back into the water.”

The old man replied, “But there must be tens of thousands of starfish on this beach. I’m afraid you won’t really be able to make much of a difference.”

The boy bent down, picked up yet another starfish and threw it as far as he could into the ocean. Then he turned, smiled and said, “It made a difference to that one!”

adapted from The Star Thrower, by Loren Eiseley (1907 – 1977)