Befrienders, a non-profit 501c3 organization, was founded by Pete Merrill February of 1993, after an 84-year-old local woman tapped on his car window in a grocery store parking lot to and offered him 35 cents for a ride home. After giving her a ride and clearing ice from her sidewalks, she asked him to come back and visit for cookies and ginger ale, which he did. Pete noticed her loneliness and social isolation; this led him to meet with organizations within the community to create companionship and assistance program for the elderly. He initially began with 106 names from the ‘Meals on Wheels’ recipient list to start Befrienders, with a vision to nurture and enrich relationships by introducing volunteer companions to seniors who struggle with social isolation.
For over 30 years, Befrienders has served thousands of local seniors in the Gallatin Valley to reduce social isolation among vulnerable seniors, striving to improve the quality of life socially, emotionally, physically, and cognitively. Each volunteer and their matched senior spend at least an hour per week interacting together. Nicole Martinez, a volunteer with her 91-year-old match Donna Garber expressed, "Befrienders has allowed me to meet with someone who I would have not had the chance to. We do everything from taking drives into the mountains, to going to the farmers market, to visiting art galleries in downtown Bozeman. We have so much in common and it brings me so much joy that I can connect with someone who is 58 years older than myself and to make a friend, no matter what age! It's a great feeling when I go to pick up Donna and I see her smiling and ready for our next adventure together!" While Maggie George, a Befriender recipient, expressed her feelings about her volunteer match, “Denise has changed my life. Befrienders has changed my life. It’s been a year since we first met! It’s insane how quickly time flies. It feels like a hole in my week when I don’t see her.”
With Bozeman being one of the 15 fastest growing cities in the country, the elderly population is currently at 13.3% percent of the community, totaling over 12,400 individuals. The rapid growth has been challenging to keep up with demand and has reached maximum capacity until more volunteers come forward to serve. Befrienders is the only organization in the area that offers these companionship services for free with trained volunteers. The pandemic in 2020 took the program back to ground zero, but the focus since has been to build back up bigger and stronger than before Covid19. By 2022, the program grew to 117 volunteers from the community who put in 6,996 hours of service with 111 senior participants. For 2023 building project, the initiative is to increase organizational capacity by hiring a part-time coordinator to handle programming responsibilities while the Executive Director continues to fundraise, conduct administrative duties, and train student interns.
Internship program for Befrienders is open to MSU students in the Community Health, Human Development, Family Science, and Early Childhood and Child Services degrees. The interns spend 10 hours a week with hands-on field experience in every aspect from on-boarding, training volunteers, interviewing seniors, making matches, and following up on match success. Many seniors in the program are on a fixed income and less than 10% can afford these types of services through a private company. The Befrienders volunteers include anyone 18 years and older who desires to give back to the community to enrich a senior’s life. If you would like to be involved with this compassionate organization for financial support or volunteering, please visit http://www.befriendersbozeman.org or call (406)522-8169 for details. Holidays and winters tend to bring feelings of isolation and depression among many, so it’s a great season to nurture a new friendship.