National Alliance on Mental Illness
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July 7, 2006

Compeer: Making Friends, Changing Lives

By Ingeborg Greenwood, Compeer Program Director, Compeer of San Mateo County, Inc.

Have you ever wished you could do something for someone who is homeless or someone living with a mental illness? Would you be willing to spend four hours monthly if that meant making a real difference? A friend can make the difference in the life of a person struggling for mental wellness.

The Compeer Program offers us a wonderful model to do just that. Compeer’s mission is to alleviate the loneliness and isolation that many individuals dealing with mental illness often experience.

A ‘compeer’, as defined in the dictionary, is a peer, a friend, a companion of equal standing. Compeer Programs nationwide recruit volunteers, screen, train, and support the one-on-one friendships through the length of the commitment. (The minimum commitment is 4 hours per month for one year.)

Compeer International is based in Rochester, New York. Through its thorough development of procedures based on thirty years experience and collaboration with Rochester and Boston Universities it offers a refined method and a workable model to create the social support our loved ones with mental illness need.

Compeer received numerous national awards for its innovative work. Find out more on its national Web site. One of the links will tell you how to start a new affiliate. Compeer programs are flexible and adjustable to various community needs. Such diverse associations as Mental Health Associations, County Mental Health Centers, faith-based social organizations, churches, and NAMI affiliates all have started their own Compeer Programs.

My years of teaching the Family-to-Family Course had motivated me to branch out to do more. I saw my son's loneliness duplicated many times over in other families. That was a need the mental health professionals could not be expected to deal with.

In 2001, I found a report in California NAMI’s publication called “Faith-in-Action NAMI Compeer Program in Santa Cruz County. It seemed a perfect fit for my vision. I did not have to reinvent the wheel. With the Santa Cruz’ director’s help I started to follow my dream. Today there are four programs in the State of California.

Around the same time, Dr. Gunnar Christianson’s NAMI FaithNet was growing here in California. From the beginning I felt there was a logical and compelling connection between NAMI FaithNet and Compeer. One was raising awareness and educating “the sleeping giant”, the religious communities, the other offered a hands-on, practical, put-your-faith-into-action program. The potential cooperation between the two stirs up great excitement and hope in me.

NAMI members have been my most enthusiastic supporters. No wonder, for we live with the painful awareness of our loved ones’ predicament year after year.

NAMI’s Family-to-Family graduates make wonderful Compeer volunteers: they are experienced (through the school of hard knocks), already understand the medical model (some of it, anyway), have learned new communication skills (or at least heard about it), and had their hearts broken (not just during empathy skill training).

We hopefully learned that we cannot do all desirable things for our own family members. But, when we no longer live in constant crisis we can become a supporting friend to someone in need of it. Could there be a future cooperation on the national level between NAMI, NAMI FaithNet, and Compeer? It is a very exciting idea. 

Consumers that have recovered a measure of wellness probably make the best volunteers. The NationalEmpowerment Center’s Amy Long was our Keynote Speaker at Compeer’s International 2006 conference. My faith in the relevance of NAMI FaithNet’s and Compeer’s work as it relates to recovery was reinforced even more by her enlightening sharing.

However, Compeer volunteers do not have to be already trained. Anyone who is someone’s friend, or has friends he depends on, already knows what Compeer is all about.

It may sound simplistic, but it is that simple. If you care, you qualify.  Did Jesus not model for us one-on-one connectivity? Let us be His hands, feet, and heart and bear each others burden, so we don’t have to say “I did not know you Lord, when you were in need….”

I thank Gunnar and NAMI FaithNet for allowing me to share my vision. For those, who want more information, here is the contact information:

Compeer International
259 Monroe Ave.
Rochester, New York 14617

Tel: 1-800-836-0475
Web site:

Compeer of San Mateo County, Inc.
868 Montezuma Drive
Pacifica, CA 94044

Tel: (650) 355-8083

Visit the NAMI FaithNet Web site for more information on faith and mental illness