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Group Provides Nature's Therapy: Friendship : Compeer: The word means "equal, companion, friend, peer." It's also the name of an organization that matches volunteers with clients for one-on-one get-togethers each week for a year. The program seems to be successful.


NEW YORK — In 1976, Trudy Pembroke weighed 325 pounds. She was divorced, unemployable, estranged from her family and confined to a state hospital in Rochester, N.Y.

Her grim history included a feeling at age 9 that something was terribly wrong with her. At that age, she did not know that she was a victim of severe depression and its devastating consequences. But she was to learn soon enough.

She attempted suicide half a dozen times, beginning at age 16. She was frequently hospitalized for her mental illness.

She had her stomach stapled to lose weight and was admitted to a group home. But the demons of overwhelming depression won again. Her spirit was broken, her fragile self-esteem shattered. She was hospitalized yet again.

Life in a state hospital seemed her destiny.

Today, Pembroke is 41 and weighs 155 pounds. She has her own apartment with new furniture. She earned an associate degree in college, bought a new car she calls "Baby" and has a new job.

She is out of therapy and off all medication.

Was it a miracle? No, it was nature's medicine--friendship.

Janice Wittmershaus, 33, a research physicist, was the friend. She befriended Pembroke until Pembroke was well enough to be her own friend.

But Wittmershaus' and Pembroke's paths probably would never have crossed if not for an unusual nonprofit organization called Compeer.

"Compeer is the best antidepressant in the world," Pembroke said.

Its premise is simply the power of friendship.

Headquartered in Rochester, Compeer began with 10 patients and 10 volunteers and was called "Adopt-A-Patient." In 1976, Bernice Skirboll answered a help-wanted ad and took over.

She found the name too patronizing and thumbed through her dictionary. She found "compeer." The definition: "equal, companion, friend, peer."

In 1977, Skirboll registered the name with the federal government, began raising money and expanded the group to an organization that has helped more than 10,000 mentally and emotionally handicapped people in 119 cities in 37 states and Canada.

The compeer contracts to spend one hour a week with the client for a year. The volunteers undergo brief training. They meet with a therapist if indicated and submit written monthly reports.

Skirboll said the backup support for each volunteer costs about $450 a year, about what it would cost to keep a patient in a hospital for three days.

The program exists from Gainesville, Fla., to Portland, Ore., from Augusta, Me., to San Diego and in smaller cities like Grand Haven, Mich., and Great Bend, Kan. Each has its own budget, some as high as $150,000. The national norm is $25,000.

Pembroke decided to go public with her story to try to eradicate the stigma the mentally ill suffer.

Her story is that of a product of a broken home, a survivor of foster homes and a father she could never please.

"I could have become President of the United States and it would not have been good enough for him," she said. "I carried that attitude into my adult life."

She has not seen her father or spoken to him or any of her four sisters in the last 10 years, although they all live within 50 miles. Her mother is dead.

"The last time I spoke to him, he said the next thing he wanted to hear about me was that I was dead," Pembroke said. "I told him I would abide by his wishes, but that I still loved him. His voice cracked a little and he said: 'OK. Goodby.' "

"I got married at 20 for all the wrong reasons," she said. "I didn't love him, but I was fat and ugly and I knew no one else would ever ask me." The marriage lasted eight years.

By the time Wittmershaus met Pembroke in 1983, she was living in a halfway house, but she was thinking of returning to the state hospital, to the wards she knew all too well.

Pembroke was in the state hospital when she was paired with her first compeer. The woman lost touch with Pembroke six years later when she moved from Rochester.

Bernice arranged for Wittmershaus to take over Pembroke's case. But after the second or third visit, Pembroke told Wittmershaus not to bother to come back.

"I did everything I could to sabotage the relationship," Pembroke said. "I wouldn't talk to her sometimes when she came." Other times, she would just cry, but she could not articulate what was wrong.

But Wittmershaus was as tenacious as Pembroke. She just kept coming back. Eventually, they started going out for coffee; they fed ducks on a pond; they went window-shopping; they went to the circus, to movies.

"I finally started talking a little bit," Pembroke recalls. "I would ask her why she would want to come and see me. Why should anyone care about me? She showed me what a true friend is. Since Janice, I know what a relationship is."

Pembroke wanted to return to the hospital. She felt she could not make it on the outside. Wittmershaus kept saying: "Yes, you can," words that eventually Pembroke came to believe.

When Pembroke started college, as Wittmershaus was studying for her master's degree, they would often study together.

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