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Building Community Beyond the Pandemic

Olympic Community of Health (OCH) had the privilege of leading a discussion about stigma with the YMCA’s Healthy Aging Community Café, a group of seniors across Washington State who join together weekly via Zoom to learn about various topics that address well-being in all aspects; social, emotional as well as physical.

The Community Café was initially started in response to COVID-19 as an opportunity to address social isolation through peer connection and support among the senior community. As the pandemic continued, the café shifted beyond just pandemic support and towards a greater focus on wellness. The group is supported by several YMCA staff from various Washington YMCA Associations. It provides opportunity to connect with individuals across different counties, as well as break out sessions for those to connect who live, work, and play in the same county.

Susan Buell, Association Director of Health Initiatives at the YMCA of Pierce of Kitsap Counties shared,

“As the pandemic, and related shut downs began, Ys around the state were doing outreach calls to seniors to assess needs and get folks connected to resources. We were hearing many, many stories of social isolation, depression and anxiety. As a collective, it has been so deeply reward to link “virtual” arms together through the Healthy Aging Community Café to create new ways to connect with each other and create a sense of belonging, healing and to offer resources that support thriving in our third third of life. We are so grateful to partners like the OCH in supporting how we nurture these gatherings with rich content and conversations. It’s life-giving.”

OCH has heard from various partners the unique challenge of adapting and sustaining COVID-19 response projects beyond the pandemic. This program is a shining example of partnership, teams from across the state, adapting an environment that was created initially for COVID-19 support, maximizing the strengths of the program to further support the aging community. The natural energy and friendship within the group is evident and contagious, and their genuine interest in learning about health topics drives the conversations.

During OCH’s presentation, community members shared their own personal experience and perspective on the topic of stigma of mental illness. Together, we explored the multi-dimensional nature of stigma, as it shows up internally and externally. The group discussed how stigma ultimately impacts one’s health. A participant shared, “our feelings impact our self-care, amount we exercise, amount we eat, amount we seek out our friends.”

The group also practiced and brainstormed de-stigmatizing language—a simple and accessible way that everyone can address stigma.

Leading up to OCH’s stigma presentation, the Community Café addressed the topic of mental wellness vs mental health. In the following weeks, they will be diving into topics like building psychological immunity, hearing “our own voice”, and practicing mental resilience.

OCH is inspired by the collaboration, vulnerability, and community-driven effort to foster connection and well-being. Keep up the great work, YMCA!

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