By Lori Berkey, Contributing Writer
Southborough – New friendships are being made in Southborough. It’s a phenomenon that’s been bolstered by Southborough Youth and Family Services since the early 1980s when the town’s mental health arm first started their multigenerational Project Friend program. The initiative has successfully been helping people make special pals ever since. In response to identified needs, the agency is expanding its offering this year to include college students and seniors in addition to its previous focus of grades K-12.
According to the agency’s director, Sarah Cassell, Project Friend involves pairing older generations with younger generations to foster special relationships that are beneficial to both sides.
“The overall mission,” Cassell said, “is to really build connectivity in town with the intention of building community but also for preventative purposes.”
Some of the youth involved are in need of some special attention, support or a good role model, Cassel added, while some of the older friends participating have a resulting boost in their self-esteem, and might acquire news skills in working with kids that they didn’t have before.
Meaghan McCarthy, the agency’s assistant director, has enjoyed watching the good that emerges from the pairings. She recalled one little friend in the program who struggled with anxiety would sometimes come to Project Friend meetings in tears. McCarthy said she would do her best to get the child to talk but rarely got much information from her. The friendship with her older paired partner turned out to be good medicine.
“Even though I was never able to really comfort her,” McCarthy said, “her big friend definitely filled that role… They quickly built a strong connection that gave this little friend support during these times…and by the end of the meeting, the little friend was always feeling at least a little better.”
While it was obvious the little friend benefited, McCarthy saw how her big friend did, too.
“She felt that she was truly able to connect with her little friend and provide her with just the right kind of support to help her through these times,” McCarthy said. “She felt a sense of accomplishment, and knew that she was making a difference in her little friend’s life.”
Cassell has been enthusiastic about the program’s outcomes ever since she started working there as a student intern. After climbing ranks to become the assistant director and now the director, she has supported the program’s growth to address unmet needs of community residents.
Previously, the program involved pairing high and elementary school students. The agency had tried different programs to connect with middle school students, but according to Cassell, it was difficult to get that group to accept services. Then, the staff had the idea that maybe the middle school students would rather be the provider of support rather than being on the receiving end. Last year, they expanded the program to include the pairing of middle school students with those in elementary school.
“Across the board, both our younger friends and older friends are benefiting from the program,” Cassell said.
Cassell became aware of another unmet need in town when she was working with a family who asked about any opportunities for their son to volunteer with senior citizens. After reaching out to the senior center, she discovered there was no ongoing opportunity for such interaction in town, so this year, senior citizens were added to the program as well as college students so middle school kids could have the option of being a big friend or getting an older friend.
Besides this core program, Southborough Youth and Family Services offers individual and group counseling; the Southborough Unplugged program which focuses on implications of technology use; and special one-time programs such as guest speakers, stress management classes at the middle school, an annual Halloween party, and other outreach and prevention activities.
To apply for participation in Project Friend, or for more information about the program or the agency’s other services, contact Cassell at 508-481-5676, ext. 2, or [email protected] or McCarthy at 508-481-5676, ext. 3 or [email protected].