Clifton Native's Mission: Smiles instead of Frowns - Clifton Campus
Drew Horn is assembling an army of volunteers for a lofty mission: to wipe out loneliness.
Horn's focus is the 50 percent of nursing home residents and people in psychiatric institutions who get no visitors, he said, and it's a problem he thinks can be solved.
His motivation is personal. The 53-year-old Clifton native, who now lives in Montclair, has bipolar disorder and tried to commit suicide twice. "I'm so bipolar, my doctor says I should have been an elevator operator," he likes to joke. "I go up and down, up and down."
He was not diagnosed until he was 42 years old, so he knows what it's like not to fit in and to live with pain and unhappiness.
A few years ago, he "took suicide off the table" and started doing his own brand of off-kilter comedy. Inspired by the story of Hunter "Patch" Adams, a doctor who overcame mental illness and used laughter as medicine for his patients, Horn decided to start the Turn a Frown Around Foundation.
"I realized the guy who's on his second martini in a comedy club doesn't need to laugh as much as the guy in the psychiatric ward," Horn said.
The organization recruits volunteers to visit nursing homes and psychiatric institutions and build friendships with people who might otherwise die without a friend.
Horn's most loyal volunteers are other people who also suffer from mental illness. When Horn's team goes into an institution to entertain the crowd, they are unconditionally accepted, he said. "There's no judgment."
At a recent Turn a Frown Around event, one of Horn's recruits described some of the activities involved in their visits, including a hugging contest. "We hug everybody in the nursing home," he said. "Whoever gives the best hug wins. And since it's mostly women in the nursing homes, usually they vote for the best-looking guy."
For Laurie Pepe, the student services specialist at the DIAL Center for Independent Living in Clifton, Horn's "ragtag army" (as he describes it) seemed like an obvious opportunity for the students she works with who are receiving special education services.
Many feel isolated or have low self-esteem. At the same time, there are people "literally dying of loneliness" in nursing homes, she said, so why not bring the two groups together? There is a lot of interest among the students, but cutting through the red tape with administrators at the institutions can be a challenge.
Horn's principle is already in practice at Clifton High School. Special education students from the school visit senior citizens every other week at the Daughters of Miriam center, helping with gardening or other service projects on the grounds and spending time with people who don't get many visitors.
The center was really rocking Thursday morning. On the fourth floor of the long-term care facility, three Clifton High School students danced among a roomful of seniors, while music therapist Dennis Grau played electric guitar and sang songs like "Ain't No Stopping Us Now." Most of the residents were in wheelchairs and suffering from dementia, but they responded to the music and the attention from the students.
A teacher's aide said the students enjoy the visits so much, they would come every day if they could.
Horn accompanied the kids, armed with his "smile catcher" (a yellow Hula Hoop) and dressed in his usual get-up of patchwork jeans, bright yellow sneakers, and a vest adorned with yellow and red buttons that say "giggle therapy" and "Don't Worry, Be Happy."
Horn is constantly on the lookout for new volunteers -- people willing to become "Forever Friends" and visit someone regularly in a nursing home. He recently got his long, curly hair cut off to be donated to Locks of Love, an organization that helps children with medical hair loss, at the Capri Institute.
It was not a routine haircut -- the beauty school was teeming with video cameras, musicians and members of Horn's offbeat entourage, who performed a series of comedy sketches and songs before the main event began. By the end, 12 people had signed up to be Forever Friends.
To really make a difference, Horn and his supporters say, New Jersey needs a Department of Visitation, and they're lobbying the state to make it happen.
"We have a Department of Transportation," Horn said. "So if you have a pothole, you can -- theoretically -- call and get it fixed." But there's nobody to call for chronic loneliness, he said.
In the long term, Horn's dream is to see a "smile station" in every city in the country where people who are lonely and those who want to volunteer can find each other. "We can cure loneliness," he said. "It's not complicated."
Reach Heather Appel at 973-569-7113 or firstname.lastname@example.org.