Despite a wealth of adverse side effects, COVID-19 has arguably brought about a few notable benefits. For example, one social response to the pandemic has been a more open and active dialogue about mental health — including finding more approachable, accessible ways to support it. Some local communities have begun grassroots campaigns to provide safe spaces fueled by connection. After all, a listening ear and a little bit of empathy can go a long way. Enter the “Friendship Bench,” a somewhat unconventional approach that actually began in Zimbabwe back in 2016. Thanks to Homestead Manor, located just outside of Nashville, it’s also making an impact right here in the South. Maybe, just maybe, you’ll find that it’s making an impact somewhere near your hometown, too.
The friendship bench concept has humble beginnings, and its purpose has always been rooted in mental health — long before COVID-19 entered the picture. “Zimbabwe had a problem with depression, anxiety, and suicide,” explains Aaron Sanders, who manages Homestead Manor’s operations. “Originally, they were going to conquer that problem by training psychologists and sending them across the nation to help people. There was money allocated for it, but the money didn’t get into the right pockets for it to happen.”
Intent on combatting the issue’s severity, one psychologist took it upon himself to travel from village to village with a simple mission: to create a friendship bench. “That bench was to train the elders in the village to listen to people — not provide any advice or solutions — just to listen,” says Aaron, “because people need someone to listen to them.” His idea was successful. In a year, the psychologist had not only traveled the nation, but he’d also fueled an astounding decrease in reports of depression, anxiety, and suicide.
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After the project’s initial success, the friendship bench concept worked its way through other areas of Sub-Saharan Africa. Now, it has made a home in Nashville, too. Motivated by the inspiring concept, Aaron and the Homestead Manor team set out to infuse the idea into the 200-year-old historic Thompson’s Station, TN site, which has served as everything from a Civil War hospital, to a hotel, to a general store.
“We bought the property, and our vision wasn’t so much to create a space for making money or to have a business,” Aaron tells us. “We were inspired by the friendship bench concept and what better place to have a gathering than a coffee shop? So, that’s the first thing we opened. Our baristas here at 1819 Coffee are trained to know that they are about friendship bench monitoring. They’re going to make the best coffee and pastries that they can make, but they’re all aware that when someone is on a bench, they’re going out to talk to them. It’s no pressure; it’s just an opportunity to offer a friend. We want to create a space where the community comes together.”
Homestead Manor has a bold statement — it’s their dream to follow Zimbabwe’s example and make an impact on the rates of suicide, depression, and anxiety. And while that may seem like a huge undertaking, it’s one that they take very seriously. “I feel like community has been happening here for 200 years, whether it’s the post office or the civil war hospital,” says Aaron. “We wanted to capitalize on that and bring some healing, and we wanted to do it through the friendship bench concept.”
Mission accomplished. While the property possesses several friendship benches, including some fashioned out of the original stone steps from the mansion, the coffee shop itself is also a friendship bench of sorts. The event center, too, for that matter. “To know the story is to embrace it and participate,” says Aaron. “We draw in people who have the heart for it — they’re buying into the concept, too, whether it’s a wedding or a corporate event. You may run into someone you’ve never met before who needs a friend, and that’s what we’re here for. Coffee is a side note.”
Whether you’re on the giving or receiving end of the friendship bench, one thing is clear: It can be life-changing. As we move toward making the mental health discussion less taboo, the friendship bench offers a therapeutic place where the community can come together — it’s as simple as providing a listening ear and a friend when someone needs it most. In essence, the bench is an extension of our hearts, and the chance to extend or accept a helping hand. So come and sit awhile. Take a load off. And make a friend while you’re at it.
A special thanks to Abby Peterson for the photos.
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