In 1965, age 25, Bernice “Bunny” Skirboll swerved to avoid a pothole and collided with an oncoming car. The other driver was unhurt, but Bunny suffered a collapsed lung, crushed chest, fractured femur and multiple leg injuries.
“I lay in a hospital bed unable to move, barely breathing,” Bunny says. “All I could do was pray. I promised God if I survived, I’d do something with my life to help others.”
Along with her husband and 2 small children, Bunny had recently moved to Rochester, NY. After 2 months in the hospital and 2 leg operations, she spent 4 more months learning to walk again. Her new neighbors stepped in. “Never in my life had I felt such support,” she says. “Neighbors took turns visiting, calling, running errands, delivering food.” (I was similarly blessed when recovering from stage 4 cancer. Burton and I are likewise grateful for the amazing support of friends.)
Once recovered, Bunny approached the Volunteer Center of the United Way. She asked, “Where’s the greatest need?”
“Mental health,” she was told, and was placed at the N.Y. State Psychiatric Hospital.
And so she found her life’s purpose. Volunteering at a mental health facility was eye opening. “Nobody wanted to volunteer there. It was too One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest. These patients were so lonely, starved for human contact.”
She enrolled in the University of Rochester and got her M.C.S. (Master of Community Service) degree. Then she had an idea: to match people of similar interests, a stronger one with a more vulnerable one.
The timing was right. States were shutting down mental health facilities and turning patient care over to local communities. Bunny thought about all the support she had received during her illness, something rarely experienced by mental health patients. She wanted to create a similar sense of support to help formerly institutionalized patients successfully live in the community. “I believed in the healing power of friendship.” She developed what she calls “intentional friendships.”
In 1975, she recruited 12 volunteers to join “Adopt-A-Patient,” later changed to Compeer.
Her first funding came from local foundations. In 1979 she received funding from the New York State Office of Mental Health to expand Compeer in the state.
“We brought the simple concept of friendship to the complex field of mental health. It turns out having someone who cares makes a difference. People who are mentally ill have a hard time making and keeping friends. They withdraw. When they realize someone cares about them, they begin to smile and show an interest in hygiene. They develop a more positive outlook. Their therapists are amazed.”
Compeer was chosen as a national model in 1982 by the National Institute of Mental Health, which funded the development of similar programs throughout the U.S. It has received many other awards. The program has grown to 50 cities, internationally, with over 5000 volunteers.
Aside from her devotion to Compeer (she’s still on the national board and chairs the Sarasota board), Bunny is wife to Mort, a retired businessman, and mother of Stephen, a neurosurgeon at Stanford University, and Lisa, a speech therapist in Rochester. 5 grandchildren call her “Ammy.” She’s also my new SRQ BFF, especially because this blonde dynamo is so petite she makes ME feel tall!
As hard as Bunny and Compeer volunteers work to improve life for mental health patients, Bunny says, “The need is as great as ever. One thing that hasn’t changed is the stigma. Whether out of shame or ignorance, mental health can be too painful for families to address. Yet it touches 1 in 5 people, 1 in 4 families, and is more prevalent than cancer.”
Which is why, 50 years later, at a point when many septuagenarians focus on their golf or bridge games or latest cruise destination, Bunny still plugs away. All because of a car crash. Thanks, Bunny, for making the world a better place.
CAN YOU HELP?
April 12-18, this year, is National Volunteer Week, which Bunny’s organization is promoting on social media—hoping to welcome more men and women to the cause. Please, share this column with friends as a reminder that we all should find a way to give back.