Smile Station serves a true purpose, bringing joy to people.
The Turn a Frown around Foundation at Montclair State University has a commitment to ending the loneliness that plagues many of the patients in nursing homes and psychiatric hospitals in Montclair and surrounding communities. It’s a yearning to end loneliness.
That’s the Turn A Frown around Foundation‘s mission. Through an environment called “Smile Stations,” TAFA gets students from MSU to sign up and serve as forever-friends to residents of local senior citizen centers and psychiatric wards. Forever-friends visit facilities including Gates Manor Nursing Home and the Essex County Hospital Center. Their goal is to provide every patient or resident with a friend who will visit, talk and even paint their nails.
“I tell people that if I had enough tentacles to love everyone, I wouldn’t be doing this,” says TAFA founder Drew Horn. “There would be no need for Smile Stations. I would… make sure everyone is loved and had a forever-friend. That would be great, but they don’t, [which is] why I do this.”
Imagine being in a nursing home or psychiatric hospital. Every day you sit and mingle with other patients and residents. Doctors and nurses become your only companions. This is where the MSU Smile Station comes in.
Alex Riddick, director of activities and volunteer services at the Gates Manor nursing home, notes the need for these forever-friendships: “It is so sad. Most of them never get visited, and the loneliness is all too prevalent.”
Riddick loves the mission to make sure people who are under-served get served. The organization has created a movement to end loneliness, and the MSU Smile Station is the first of four in the nation. The other Smile Stations are located at Delaware Valley College in Pennsylvania, Northern Illinois University and Seymour Public Library in Connecticut.
“With the intensity of what we are doing, Smile Stations will become the McDonalds of unconditional love,” Horn says. “I think our nursing homes are phenomenal in trying to help the physical quality of life. At the same time, the spirit is dying because they have no one to interact with or be their friend so that they can feel special. These people have nobody to talk to.”
Gates Manor patient Dorleen Ross is a perfect example of the impact of the forever-friendship. She gets excited just hearing the name of her forever-friend, MSU Biology major, Gysel Espinoza.
“There are days when I wake up very lonely,” Ross said. “Gysel plays a big part. She’s helped me see that even though my own daughter doesn’t have time, young people like her make time to visit someone like me. It really brings joy to us old ones.”
Horn did not come to this passion out of nowhere. He was classified bipolar at the age of 42. He spent years of his life in solitude and desperation, spending many years in a psychiatric hospital. He said in 2003 he decided he would change his life and pledged medicine would be helping others plagues by loneliness to find some happiness.
The result was the first Smile Station at MSU in 2011. Currently, Horn is in the process of writing a book about his experiences with MSU psychology major Caitlyn Yerves. The book, I’m So Bipolar I Should Have Been an Elevator Operator, comes from Horn’s philosophy that life can go up and down so much you lose focus.
On campus, the MSU Smile Station recruits forever-friends much like fraternities go after pledges. Once a student is deemed qualified, the forever-friend must commit to visiting their assigned friend a minimum of once a week. If they cannot make a visit, then they at least have to make a phone call to let their friend know they were thinking about them, or just to see how they are doing.
When visiting their forever-friends, the students do a variety of activities with them. They paint their nails, talk, watch TV, gossip, play games and just enjoy each other’s company. The friendship is genuine, and this means the world to the patients: to have a friend who visits them normally, who knows what they like and dislike and who accepts them and loves them for exactly who they are.
The success of the MSU Smile Station has led to the students looking to expand. The goal is to create a Smile Station in at least one college campus in every state in America. The MSU chapter has already set up a station at Passaic Valley High School in Little Falls. It is called the Peer Helper Smile Station, and is coordinated through the Peer Helpers Club.
“TAFA’S movement to ending loneliness is the perfect mission to place our efforts,” said Kelly Morris, the student crisis counselor and coordinator of the Peer Helper’s Club. Horn believes now that TAFA has started on the high school level, these high school students can take the movement and Smile Station to whichever college campus they choose to reside.
The result is best explained by a recent visit Lena Ingardone had with her forever-friend. “Last time I visited, her bracelet got tugged on my sweater,” said Ingardone. “While trying to remove it she said, ‘see I latched on so you can’t go anywhere.’”