The Athens Friendship Bench program announces new community training as its popularity grows

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ATHENS, Ohio (WOUB/Report for America) — Olivia Degitz has noticed a change among the teenagers who come to the Chauncey Public Library to hang out.

“When somebody comes into the library and has big feelings, as you do when you’re a teen, they say, ‘Do you wanna go talk about it outside on the bench?’” Degitz said.

The “bench” refers to the library’s Friendship Bench, where trained “listeners” meet with community members who need a sympathetic ear. It’s part of the Athens City-County Health Department’s Friendship Bench program, of which Degitz is the director.

Based on a similar project from Zimbabwe, the program currently has meeting benches set up outside the public libraries in The Plains, Chauncey and Nelsonville. There is also a bench outside the health department offices in Athens.

A green metal bench sits on a brick path by a tree.
Friendship Bench listeners meet community members on actual benches to hear their problems and offer support. [Theo Peck-Suzuki | WOUB/Report for America]
Degitz said most of the Chauncey teens have never used the bench, but they still seem to have picked up on what the adults are using it for.

“They call it the ‘acquaintance bench’ because they’re too cool to call it the ‘friendship bench,’ but they have kind of adopted it on their own,” she said.

To Degitz, the teens’ attitude reflects the overall goal of the program.

“We slowly are creating a community of problem solvers,” she said.

To that end, the Friendship Bench program is offering a training in January for community members interested in acquiring new peer support and problem solving skills.

Degitz said trainees do not have to volunteer as listeners after they complete their training — though they will be eligible to do so if they wish.

“Our hope — like, big picture hope — is that people will take these skills and use them in their everyday lives and in their relationships,” Degitz said.

Degitz noted that many community members come to the benches to talk about relationship issues. Precarious housing and homelessness, which have worsened in the region recently, are also popular topics.

The upcoming Friendship Bench training is free and takes place from 9 to 4 on three Mondays: January 22, January 29 and February 5. All are welcome to attend, but space is limited to 25.

Anyone interested in participating can register by emailing or calling 740-300-0488 and giving their name after the prompt.