Press release from UNC Asheville:
In early 2020, a team at the University of North Carolina Asheville formed the Social Bridging Project as an aid to support Western North Carolina adults and seniors experiencing isolation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. With a grant from Dogwood Health Trust, this community initiative can invest in additional support and services to help a larger audience of vulnerable adults in need.
Founded by Amy Joy Lanou, UNC Asheville’s executive director for the North Carolina Center for Health and Wellness and professor of health & wellness, Tasha Woodall, assistant professor of clinical education and clinical instructor of family medicine at UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy, Jeff Jones, project coordinator for the Social Bridging Project, Ellen Garrison, former professor in UNC Asheville’s health & wellness promotion department, and Jordan Perry, UNC Asheville’s healthy campus liaison, the Social Bridging Project connects outreach workers, student interns, and volunteers with socially-isolated adults to form meaningful human connections and provide a link between community resources.
“The Social Bridging Project provides social connection,” says Thom Smythe, coordinator at the Social Bridging Project. “Our wellness calls allow our participants to feel cared for, heard, and connected to others in their community. Not only do we provide social support, but we also connect those same individuals to resources they are not currently receiving. We have successfully assisted folks in receiving tech support, medical/mobility equipment, transportation, and various other services.”
The Social Bridging Project trains wellness volunteers on how to make repeated, reliable, empathetic wellness check-in calls to isolated elders and disabled adults in Western North Carolina. In addition to lending a careful and compassionate ear, volunteers and staff connect this vulnerable population with free or low-cost medical supplies, food, transportation, and emotional support, among other resources. The community-minded organization also provides coaching to help isolated adults learn how to use social media and video conferencing applications and access telehealth.
Although technology help is the most common topic touched on in conversations with project participants, in a recent survey, over half of the Social Bridging Project’s wellness callers reported that either loneliness or social isolation was a primary challenge. “I got help with things that made my life better and that makes me feel safer,” said one of the program’s participants who received support for concerns related to COVID and food insecurity. Another shared that the program helped ease their loneliness by “Just having somebody to talk to on the phone… I only have a few [friends], and they prefer to send texts. I have no family, and my neighbors aren’t very friendly, so I basically have no one to talk to.” Reported another, “I was surprised actually because I didn’t think I would connect with a stranger.” The results of this evaluation were published in Gerontology and Geriatric Medicine in March 2022.
Says Smythe, “There are no qualifying criteria for someone to receive a call from The Social Bridging Project. As long as someone’s needs fit within our scope of social support and basic resource assistance, we are happy to help. The program is completely free, and one needs only to fill out a referral form to receive a call from us.”
With the funds from the $150,000+ one-year grant awarded to the Social Bridging Project from Dogwood Health Trust, the organization plans to address health equity by expanding outreach to Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) by increasing paid and volunteer BIPOC callers and growing referrals to isolated BIPOC adults. The grant will also allow the Social Bridging Project to increase its paid staff and expand to support populations in far western areas, including Graham County and the Qualla Boundary.
Additional monetary support was received earlier this year when the Social Bridging Project received a NOW grant of $5,000 from the Western NC Bridge Foundation. Initial funding came from the N.C. Policy Collaboratory at UNC-Chapel Hill in 2020, with a $610,000 award to UNC Asheville to establish the Social Bridging Project, WNC University Student Health Ambassadors, and a statewide study of comorbidity factors during COVID-19.
“We deeply appreciate the opportunity to partner with Dogwood Health Trust and WNC Bridge Foundation to continue to address an often overlooked social determinant of health, social isolation,” says Amy Joy Lanou. “Social isolation and loneliness for many were compounded by efforts to mitigate COVID-19 transmission. Participants regularly (80% of completed calls) report being helped to feel better by each call. Addressing social isolation has far reaching positive impacts on health including chronic disease outcomes, mental and emotional health and quality of life.”
The Social Bridging Project actively accepts volunteers to call and write to isolated seniors living in Western North Carolina. “Anyone interested in volunteering with The Social Bridging Project can reach out directly to us with questions,” says Smythe. “Folks interested in making calls for us go through a three-hour training and can then make calls to folks in their area. We are also looking for individuals interested in our Wellness Writers program, reaching out by mail to those whose primary form of contact is not by phone.”
To learn more about the Social Bridging Project, visit https://healthyagingnc.com/social-bridging-project/