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Adult Recreation as a Bridge to Friendship

by David and Faye Wetherow

Note: This article (which includes some material 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 us for permission.

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 the head). 

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 limited.

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.

‘Filling the 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 connection.

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 we seek.

Some Practical Strategies

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 these years’?

We Started Out by ‘Being There’

At 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’ isn’t enough…

I 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

If 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 be enough. 

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. 

Sharing Passionate Interests

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 contribution. 

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 welcomed?"

It 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:

Joining the Set-Builders

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 Start Looking

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.

Finding the Muffin-Makers

As our conversation evolved, we helped Sara, her mother, a couple of program staff, and the pastor from her church, create a new personal plan. 

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 Canada. 

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.

Recognizing the ‘Sweet Places’

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:

·         there is a conscious focus on discovering peoples’ gifts and contributions, and a on building and supporting relationships

·         there is a culture of respect, encouragement and compassionate communication

·         the ‘scale’ is small enough that individuals can be recognized and their gifts discovered

·         they are close enough to where we live so that ‘transportation’ doesn’t become a perpetual barrier to connection

·         there is 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 author of 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 Today’s Leaders

A Summary of Practical Strategies

If 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.

We remember that our friendships often began with one shared interest and expanded to others.  We discover new interests together, and that leads to new connections.

We 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 surface differences. 

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 background.

We 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.

Building Circles, 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.


It may take more-than-one-of-us to make this work, especially when we're challenged by the press of time and responsibility.  Because the balance of time and energy may be stretched by the presence of disability, we may have to think in terms of inviting and supporting an intentional ‘circle’ of companionship.  Judith Snow's idea of the Circle (described in several Inclusion Press publications) has become a model for the development of intentional circles all over the world.  There are others: Mennonite Central Committee’s pattern for Supportive Care in the Congregation, the Personal Support Networks described in Al Etmanski’s book, A Good Life, and First Nations’ traditional caregiving societies. 

bullet It is tender work, so we need to move in ways that allow people to feel safe, loved, loving and very gently engaged.  Friendship is a discovery, not a requirement, and it helps to remember the value of small beginnings.  At the outset, we’re not asking for a lifetime commitment.  Sometimes it’s as simple as asking Ellen (one of the muffin-makers, who also belongs to the Garden Club), “Ellen, you know that Sara is interested in gardening.  Could you come for coffee and help us think about how she can get connected with the Garden Club?”

The good news is that for much of this, we don’t need a ‘program’.  It’s within the reach of families and friends.  As Wendell Berry reminds us in Home Economics

We hear again the voices out of our cultural tradition telling us that to have community people don't need a 'community center' or 'recreational facilities' or any of the rest of the paraphernalia of 'community improvement' that is always for sale. Instead, they need to love each other, trust each other, and help each other. That is hard. All of us know that no community is going to do these things easily or perfectly, and yet we know there is more hope in that difficulty and imperfection than in all the neat instructions for getting big and getting rich that have come out of the universities and agribusiness corporations in the past fifty years.



© 2004 David and Faye Wetherow ! CommunityWorks

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