In Salem, Sidewalk Talk volunteers listen with no strings attached

Kelly Ward holds a Sidewalk Talk sign at the group’s first event on May 18, 2019 in Riverfront Park. (Courtesy/Kelly Ward)

As nurses, Kelly Ward and Lindsey Cretella spend a lot of their time listening to people.

Now, they’re taking those skills to the streets with a Salem chapter of Sidewalk Talk to listen to anyone who wants to talk to them about anything.

Ward sees it as a simple but powerful way to build human connection in a world where many people feel isolated.

“You meet them where they’re at. You’re hearing them,” she said.

Their inaugural event in May in Riverfront Park garnered skepticism from people who assumed the seven volunteers sitting across from empty chairs were trying to sell something or sway political opinions.

Once people learned they were just there to talk, that skepticism didn’t evaporate. But the promise of “connection without strings” made people curious enough to sit down, Ward said.

Kelly Ward listens during a Sidewalk Talk event in Riverfront Park. (Courtesy/Kelly Ward)

Signs on chairs encouraged people to join in: “I dare you to tell me anything,” one read.

Ward said many took them up on the offer – to talk about relationship problems or the excitement of a visiting relative, or sometimes just to sit quietly with someone else.

“I remember looking up at one point and seeing all the chairs were filled,” she said.

Sidewalk Talk is an international nonprofit started in 2014 by two San Francisco therapists with a goal of building community and healing divisions. Local chapters are run by people with experience in leadership and organizing as well as mental health or crisis work.

Anyone over 18 can become a listener after a brief online training through the group’s website. Ward said Salem now has about 10 trained listeners, most of whom work in health care and social service jobs.

Ward sees the interest as a response to a world where in-person social interactions are less common.

Developed countries across the world focus on individualism, encouraging young adults to move out of the home right away instead of having multiple generations of family living together, she said.

Thanks to online shopping and grocery delivery services, most physical needs can be met without ever leaving the home. Community centers and gathering places are less common, she said.

“We don’t have those social hubs like we used to. People drive everywhere,” she said.

Listeners decorated chairs with signs encouraging people to talk. (Courtesy/Kelly Ward)

Heidi Davis is a case manager with an insurance company who often shares clients with Ward. She signed up as a listener because she thinks people need more places where they can be heard.

“Families are struggling, teens are struggling, adults are struggling and there’s not enough mental health providers to go around,” Davis said. “Just to have someone listen and show that they’re there to support them is a huge value.”

The Salem chapter started after Ward and Cretella connected at a Salem Health suicide prevention training. Both nurses were selected by colleagues to participate in Salem Health’s Community Champions program, where service-minded employees complete a community service project with marketing help from the hospital.

Ward said they were both struggling to think of something that wasn’t just a fundraiser for a local group.

“People are asked for money all the time. How do you make it something different?” she said.

At the training, they talked about social isolation and how it plays into suicide. Cretella found the Sidewalk Talk nonprofit and the pair decided to become city leaders.

Listeners don’t give advice or try to fix problems, something Ward said makes their effort different from therapy or even talking to a friend or family member. Instead, they ask questions or offer empathy to encourage people to share their stories.

Hearing about someone else’s problems or distress can be hard, Ward said, and modern culture tends to value quick fixes. That’s rooted in discomfort, she said.

“If someone has an issue, you want them to be fixed and okay,” she said.

But well-meaning advice can have the opposite effect, creating frustration or a feeling the listener doesn’t truly understand. Some problems aren’t solvable.

“Oftentimes that doesn’t change their situations. They can’t change their situation, you don’t know them well enough to change their situation,” she said. “If you go to fix the problems you diminish them as a person.”

Lindsey Cretella, left, and Kelly Ward are city leaders for Salem’s Sidewalk Talk chapter. (Courtesy/Kelly Ward)

The people who sat down to talk during the first event were a diverse group. Davis spoke with a woman who was struggling after re-locating to the area without much support.

She stumbled across the sidewalk listeners while out for a walk to clear her head.

After talking to Davis, “she thanked me and said she would look for us again,” Davis said.

The group’s next listening event will take place Sunday, June 30, during the World Beat Festival. Listeners will sit on the Union Street Railroad Bridge connecting Riverfront Park and Wallace Marine Park.

Ward and Cretella are seeking more listeners. Anyone interested can email [email protected] for more information.

Davis said she was nervous about the first event, but the good turnout and feedback showed her the value of the effort.

“It’s about helping others but it helps me too,” she said. “I enjoy meeting new people and hearing what they have to say, learning about others and their lives. I think it’s rewarding both for myself and for the person that you’re listening to.”

Reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.