Recreation as a Bridge to Friendship
David and Faye Wetherow
Note: This article (which includes
from our earlier articles, Reflections on Friendship and Moving from Activity to
Connection) will be published in the TASH
Newsletter in the fall of 2004. It may be printed out
for personal use, and we welcome Internet links, but reprinting for
training materials, etc. requires permission from TASH.
Please write to
One of the major challenges faced by people who live with disabilities is
the prospect of social isolation. We may feel like we’re standing on the
shore, watching others moving in a sea of relationships. We crave
connection but we struggle with isolation. The ebb and flow of play,
enjoyment and affection seems out of reach, and we worry about the
possibility of a life-long pattern of separateness.
What opportunities might lie in the realm of ‘recreation’ to invite and
support meaningful relationships for ourselves, our sons and daughters,
and our friends who live with disabilities?
When we think about the recreation as a possible bridge to expanding
personal relationships, it becomes apparent that some pursuits are far
more likely to be fruitful than others. For example it’s clear that
solitary activity offers limited opportunity for connection (I swam
‘laps’ today, and my only connection with another swimmer was a bump on
It’s also clear that segregated recreation offers little
opportunity for developing an expanded circle of personal
relationships. We may experience brief connections with cheerful
supporters, but the opportunity to deepen those connections may be quite
If it’s true that the quality of our lives depends at least in part on
our being involved with a circle of people who know us, care about us, and
feel a sense of kinship with us, then it makes sense to invest at least
some of our ‘recreational’ time, energy and money in ways that help to
develop and sustain those relationships.
Our personal and organizational investments are more likely to bear
fruit if we take strategic action. This can be something as simple as
changing our focus from ‘filling the calendar with activities’ to a
conscious strategy of following the ‘threads’ of interests, delights, and
passions in the direction of relationship, community, and contribution.
Calendar with Activity’ – the empty calories of recreation
Our colleague John O'Brien points out that the 'driving questions' that
underlie our personal and organizational work have a great influence on
the direction, shape, and outcome of that work. The question, “What can
we do to provide recreational activity for people who have nothing to fill
their calendars?” is likely to generate a perpetual series of supported
'activities', excursions, and entertainments (at best), and 'van therapy'
or 'mall therapy' (at worst).
Most packaged (commercialized) recreation tends to sit somewhere on the
‘activity’ end of the continuum. Trips to
Disneyland, movies, concerts, etc. are pleasant enough activities,
but they are likely to leave us with only memories and a nagging hunger
for another ‘fix’.
Current community-based recreation programs seem to be anchored in this
question of how to fill the calendar. A program might support a person
(or more likely a group of people) to attend a local swimming pool, go on
a hike, or spend an evening at a local pub. But the focus tends to be on
the activity per se. We may hope for connection, but in the
absence of a concrete strategy, our community-based program may merely get
us into the ‘stage-setting’ of the community. Having no real roots in
community, it has little likelihood of leading to real community
This is not to say that individual activities don’t involve positive
elements – they do. They may be pleasant events, involve positive
interactions, and possibly support skill development, even mastery. But
unless they are strategically focused on deepening connections, activities
alone are unlikely to lead towards the kinds of meaningful relationships
The search for concrete strategies starts easily enough – by paying
attention to the patterns that are at work when things turn out ‘right’.
How did our most important friendships come into being? Where were we
when we discovered each other? Among the hundreds of people we've met in
our lifetimes, how is it that some of us are still friends ‘after all
We Started Out by
the simplest level, we made our first connections because we were
‘there’ in the same place at the same time. If I'm not ‘there’ – if I
stay home or if I've been sent away for ‘special’ (you can fill in the
blanks) – friendship doesn’t have much of a chance. But ‘being there’
was ‘there’ (with a thousand other people) at a Janis Joplin concert at
the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco in 1967. It was the Summer of
Love. We were close-packed. We were young, feeling groovy, and we loved
the same music. But nobody from that concert is in my life today. In
fact, nobody from that concert was in my life the next morning. We can
spend a lifetime going from one ‘activity’ to another and still be alone
the next day, or we can try another tack.
‘Going Back’, ‘Finding the Edges’, and Finding the Small Associations
we think about it, one basic pattern for developing connections in any
context is to keep going back over time.
But just as we
discovered that ‘being there’ wasn’t enough, simply ‘going back’ may not
Twenty years after that night at the Fillmore, I attended a large church
in Winnipeg. There were a lot of people to connect with; the church was
filled four times every Sunday. But one could go back for a month (or a
year) of Sundays and still not connect because the ordinary pattern of the
service didn't really lend itself to making connections. You had
to connect around the ‘edges’ of the service.
The edges were always there: times of arriving and departing, waiting for
the first notes to sound from the organ, coffee after the service. But if
you were shy or didn’t know how to ‘make time’ in those brief moments, you
could still miss the boat.
There were other kinds of ‘edges’… In 1993, an inquiring young man
conducted a little survey inside this big congregation. He discovered
that there were seventy-six small associations in the church, each
focused on something different. For example, morning coffee might be just
a brief event for the people who came downstairs after the service, but
the people who made the coffee were solidly connected to each
other; after all, they’d been doing this together for years.
While people were making coffee (or doing any of the things that focused
the other seventy-five small associations), people had a chance to
discover each other. They shared time, space, conversation, and most
importantly, they shared common interests. This is even more
powerful when the interest is passionate. When we share a
passionate interest, we share an identity. The coffee-makers were
social, but they were also passionate. They were ‘political’, so we drank
‘Fair Trade’ coffee, learned about growers’ cooperatives and learned
something about the church’s work on social justice in Latin America.
We remembered this several years ago when our daughter was
home-schooling, so we said to her tutor/assistant, "We want you to pay
attention to the things that interest Amber and try to follow those
threads of her interest in the direction of companionship, connection, and
“Here's an example of what we mean. Right now, Amber is
interested in figuring out how to deal with the slugs in our garden
without having to kill them. How much she learns about garden slugs is
far less important than working on the connections.
“We want you to do some detective work, and find out who else cares
passionately about that question. What groups in our community are
interested in the question of earth-friendly gardening? Where could she
make a meaningful contribution? Where would her interest in that topic be
turned out that in our community, some of the people who organized
political action to save the Englishman River Estuary were passionate
about this topic (the links between pesticide use, watershed and wildlife
was important). The organizers came from all walks of life, representing
a wide range of ages, incomes and backgrounds, and they all loved this
beautiful place. As they worked together on something they felt
passionate about, they discovered friendships across what would otherwise
have been 'natural' barriers of income, culture, age, and disability.
Passionate interests don't have to be big deals, but it helps if they're
about more than 'consuming' something. Listening to music (especially if
we keep going back and the place is small enough) brings people closer
than merely buying (or these days downloading) music. But making music
is a real ticket to connection!
‘Following the Thread’
John O’Brien points out that as soon as we change the driving questions
we open doors to new possibilities. If we think about a conscious strategy
of ‘following the thread’ of our interests, delights, and passions in the
direction of companionship, connection, and contribution, something new
can happen. Here are a couple more examples:
Some colleagues who work in a rural community have always assisted the
people they support to attend an annual community dinner and barn dance -
a delightful event, especially if you like barbeque. Visiting with staff,
we began to explore the possibility that a couple of the people they
assist could become involved with the group that sponsors and organizes
the dinner and dance. There's always a lot of work involved and all kinds
of contributions are welcome.
Instead of one great evening, there was an opportunity for a few people
to be involved for months prior to the community dinner, and the
possibility of developing relationships with local citizens who represent
many different kinds of connections - local farmers, family members,
church members, people involved in civic life.
Stop Cooking and
A few years ago we visited a facility-based day program that tended to
take the form of school-without-end combined with recreation-without-end.
‘Cooking’ was one of the regularly scheduled activities.
'Cooking-as-an-activity' involved staff assisting people to make muffins
and other desserts in the facility’s kitchen. The benefits? An
enjoyable hour or two. Nice interactions with staff. A tasty product to
be shared with friends and family. Some learning outcomes in terms of
reading, following recipes, 'functional' cooking skills, etc.
But now as the support staff began to explore alternative questions,
they started thinking about 'cooking-with-a-focus-on-connection'. The
first thing they realized was that they needed to stop cooking and
start looking. Being good detectives became an interesting new
element in their job descriptions.
They began to envision helping Sara, who loves to cook, find a
gourmet group that met in members’ homes to enjoy ethnic dinners and share
food, music, and conversation. If such a group didn't already exist, they
would work on finding people who might be interested in starting such a
group, and Sara could become one of the organizers.
‘Cooking-as-connection’ contained all of the positive elements involved
in ‘cooking-as-an-activity’, but it also created opportunities for Sara to
connect on a regular basis with people who shared the same passion and
made it possible for her to contribute to a delightful social event.
In the long run, as the program staff followed out this idea with one
person after another, the ‘facility’ was dismantled. The supports are
still there, but they’re operating in a very different way in the
community, and in people’s lives.
As our conversation evolved, we helped Sara, her mother, a couple of
program staff, and the pastor from her church, create a new personal
Sara had been in the program for some time, and she knew that planning
usually took the form of asking 'what activity should we add to the
calendar?' Plans focused on personal interests and skill development, but
didn’t particularly focus on connections. But now several new
opportunities presented themselves, including 'Cooking-as-connection',
'gardening-as-connection’, and the possibility of creating a community
folk dance group. Pastor Merv came up with this idea when he heard that
Sara loved folk dancing. He had a real personal interest because he
missed the English dancing that was part of his life before he came to
Merv intuitively understood the pattern for moving from activity to
connection and made a commitment to support several connections for Sara,
starting with a group of women who gathered every Saturday to make muffins
for the Sunday service. When the muffin-makers gathered every Saturday,
they talked as they cooked. They got to know each other well. They
appreciated each others’ contributions, gifts and interests: Sara makes
wonderful lemon and poppy-seed muffins. Frances
just found a new connection for ‘Fair Trade’ tea. Mary and Jess discovered
that they shared a love for ocean kayaking.
The Saturday muffin-making group was a particularly fruitful place in
Sara’s small community. As we’ve thought about it over the years, it has
become clear that there are ‘places’ in community that lend themselves
more easily to discovering and supporting connections. Faye calls them
the ‘sweet places’. They are places where:
a conscious focus on discovering peoples’ gifts and contributions, and a
on building and supporting relationships
a culture of respect, encouragement and compassionate communication
‘scale’ is small enough that individuals can be recognized and their gifts
close enough to where we live so that ‘transportation’ doesn’t become a
perpetual barrier to connection
a focus on cooperation rather than competition
This last item is particularly interesting. Competition can quickly
define us as ‘other’, or as ‘deficient’, so it makes sense to look for
places where cooperation is the hallmark.
Take the game of musical chairs. As it is usually
played, it is a game of conquest and displacement. People playing it
quickly lose their manners and will perpetrate any atrocity to take a seat
when the music stops. The sad irony is that eventual winners grin at the
losers, as if they join in their triumph over them. The truth is, it's a
game that quickly gets out of control, and at the end only one person is
happy, and even he or she has suffered a decline in popularity.
Robert Fulghum [the
Everything I Need to
Know I Learned in Kindergarten], suggested a civilized reengineering of
the game. In this version, the object is not to exclude people, but to
find ways to include them, even when there are no chairs left. People do
remarkable and often quite pleasant things to find room on their laps for
one another. He has seen groups find seats for everyone even when there
are no chairs left — they support one another in the air, like a
suspension bridge. He once watched the entire student body of a college
make room for one another in their human latticework.
The Masters Forum: Tomorrow’s Ideas for
A Summary of
we reflect back on where we met our best friends, we remember that most of
our strong friendships emerged in the context of doing something
interesting together over time. We went to school together. We worked in
the same company. We canoed with the Naturalists’ Society. We played on
stage together in summer stock.
remember that our friendships often began with one shared interest and
expanded to others. We discover new interests together, and that leads to
remember that introductions make a big difference. When Peter
moved out to B.C. I introduced him to John. Peter and John are good
friends now, and their friendship has a life that is independent of me.
The depth and quality
of introduction makes a big difference. We don't just introduce our
friend to another person, we share our enjoyment, we give a good account,
we talk about gifts, and we identify common interests. We may need to be
more ‘on purpose’ when the quick-acting ‘rules of attraction’ or the
recognition of shared interest and shared identity is slowed down by
We remember that we
have the power to introduce our friends in ways that define them as
‘alike’ or as ‘other’. Shared interests and gifts make us alike.
Defining our friends by their disabilities makes them ‘other’, so it helps
to focus on shared interests and gifts and let disability fade into the
remember that ‘numbers’ have an impact: most of us have met hundreds of
people in our lives, but only a handful of them have become good friends.
We need to create many opportunities for connection.
Ordinary Ways and Tender Work
Because we are working to overcome the distance associated with disability
and the fact that the ordinary ‘rules of attraction’ may not be
immediately in play, we know that we have to be ‘on purpose’. The good
news is that all of the ‘ways’ are the known ways of friendship,
family and community. They’re not disability-specific or special, but
they may need to be more intentional.