Volunteer Email Buddy Program
Through a local high school and community contacts we found there was an interest in participating in our project. Based on the interest we developed a volunteer training program. The following description was provided to potential volunteers:
"Through our grant funding we have developed and evaluated special computers that allow people with severe memory impairments to email. We are interested in learning whether people who have cognitive impairments and who are socially isolaed as a result of brain injury could email if we designed a system that accommodated their cognitive problems. We are also interested in studying whether the ability to email reduces feelings of social isolation and whether it improves their cognitive function. We have several people on our project that want to email, but do not have any family or friends with whom they could have an email partnership. We are developing a volunteer email buddy program that would train community members to be email buddies to our program participants. Please contact us if you are interested."
Benefits to the volunteers include learning about brain injury and cognitive disorders as well as assistive technology. Training opportunities include:
Brain injury education that involves reading, didactic teaching about brain injury and disability and the opportunity to view videotapes depicting people with a range of skills and challenges.
Learning about the Think and Link Email interface and how it differs from commercial email programs
Criterion-based training to learn how to generate an effective email when the receiver has a cognitive impairments.
Participation requirements include:
Access to email
Ability and willingness to check email on a near daily basis and respond to any emails and/or generate a new email
Responding to 3-4 survey questions via email every two weeks
Check in meeting with researchers every 4-8 weeks
Commitment to email for a minimum period of 3 months
Parental permission if under 18
Volunteers learn how to simplify language without making emails feel patronizing. They learn how to ignore any email topics that might not be appropriate and to encourage new topic generation. Training is also provided on how to protect participant confidentiality. At this time, we have provided training to 4 high school students, 1 retired senior citizen and 1 young woman who is employed and volunteers on the side. One student is working on meeting criteria for generating effective email and the other volunteers completed training and are actively emailing their partners. Both the longitudinal participants and the volunteers report high satisfaction with the program. Below are the responses to sample questions from several initial surveys of the volunteers.
Some quotes from email buddies:
1. What is the best thing about corresponding with your buddy?
“The best thing about corresponding with my buddy is the friendship I think we’re building. Despite the differences in our lives, we’ve found some similar interests. I’m always ecited to see what he was written and it’s fun to think I’m giving friendship to someone who might not have had anyone else to correspond with.”
“ [The program] has shown me that just because someone has a cognitive disorder, it certainly doesn’t mean they aren’t intelligent. I have a new way of looking at the mentally disabled.”
“I enjoy corresponding with someone that I wouldn’t have normally met.”
“I really enjoy learning about someone new, and he helps me see things through his perspective.”
2. What is the most challenging thing about corresponding with your buddy?
"The most challenging thing for me is thinking of subjects that my buddy will be able to relate to. Our lives are incredibly different so some topics that are important to me would not interest him."
"So far, it hasn't been challenging at all. H emails often, which I like and he is easy to understand."
"Finding a topic that we're both comfortable with."
"I think the most callenging thing would be staying interested in the conversations enough to want to write out a well thought out response."