Sidewalk Talk: Bay Area volunteers listen, offer ‘human connection’ outside library, food bank

FREMONT — Everybody needs someone to talk to.

Fears, worries, hopes and dreams are part of the human experience, but finding someone to share those with can sometimes be difficult.

That’s where the Fremont listeners come in. Several times a month, a small group of volunteers station themselves at public gathering spots, equipped with folding camping chairs and open ears, ready to listen closely to others who need to talk.

It’s one of the latest local groups of volunteers to take up the mantle of Sidewalk Talk, a nonprofit founded in 2015 by two therapists in San Francisco, whose model has since spread to nearly 50 cities in 12 countries.

“We’re here to listen. We’re not here to proselytize, or sell anything,” the Rev. Barbara Meyers, who organizes the local group, said while sitting just outside the Fremont Main Library entrance.

Meyers is a community minister with Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Fremont, and for years she has focused on mental health in her work. She said she was naturally drawn to the Sidewalk Talk program because of the value it inherently places on other people.

The program has had volunteers posted at the Tri-City Volunteers thrift store and food bank in Fremont every Wednesday since October, and on the first and third Sundays at the library since November.

“Many times people don’t have a way to actually make a connection with another human being,” Meyers said. “They might sign onto Facebook, but to actually have a human being there listening to them, caring about what they’re saying, and not trying to take the conversation over or tell them that they’re screwed up” is significant.

Lei Wang, of Fremont, was headed into the library Sunday to study and prepare for an upcoming job interview. She’s been on the hunt for a job for about six months, so when she bumped into Sidewalk Talk volunteer Shamsa Rafay, she launched into the topic.

“Usually I just digest things on my own,” Wang said in an interview after talking with Rafay.

Wang, who holds a master’s degree in accounting, said she doesn’t want to talk with her parents, who live in China, about her ongoing job search. “They think, ‘You have a master’s degree, you must have a job. All the companies must love you,’ ” she said. “I don’t think they understand” the Bay Area’s a “really hard, really precise, really competitive” job market.

Meyers said volunteers don’t offer advice or try to fix problems, but do refer people to national and local resources where help can be found, such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, or the Planned Parenthood Hotline.

After her chat with Rafay, Wang came away with a positive impression of the program and said she might volunteer to listen to others in the future.

“Even if they don’t solve your problems, just talking to others about it can make it a little bit better,” she said.

Volunteers at Fremont’s program said they also benefit, taking away valuable life lessons about gratitude and sensitivity toward others.

Meyers said she’s also been a part of the San Francisco program for about a year, often volunteering in the Tenderloin neighborhood. There, she’s listened to many people whose lives have been affected by drug abuse, alcoholism and prostitution.

When she listens at the Fremont library, she said she often comes across graduate students stressing over their next big exam.

No matter the issue, Meyers said there’s a common thread to these Sidewalk Talk interactions.

“The problems are different, but the human experience — the human anxiety that they are holding underneath — is similar.”

Source: mercurynews
Sidewalk Talk: Bay Area volunteers listen, offer ‘human connection’ outside library, food bank