"It's a yearning for ending loneliness."
Ask Drew Horn about his mission and purpose and he always brings it back to that simple phrase.
Horn is the founder and director of the Turn A Frown Around Foundation, or TAFA. TAFA was born out of Horn's desire and personal mission to end loneliness in nursing homes, psychiatric wards, orphanages, and those who fall through the cracks of our society.
Initially, his goal was to produce 'Inspirational Comedy' that grew out of his own story.
"I'm so bipolar, I should have been an elevator operator," Horn jokes, "and I'm a very sick guy who got very lucky. I've been homeless four times and in and out of psychiatric wards, my life super sucked."
Through medication and therapy, Drew was able to take control of his situation and sought to keep himself motivated.
"So When I took suicide off the table, I decided to do comedy so I wouldn't kill myself. From that I decided I really did want to make people laugh."
He began performing comedy, and really enjoying its challenge and rewards. He soon realized that, "The guy on his third martini doesn't need to laugh as much as the person in the nursing home or psych ward really did, and I understood that."
"I know what it means to be a throwaway, I know what it means to be an annoyance to everybody, I know what it is to make phone calls and have people just hang up on you because they don't want to have to deal with you anymore."
He began going into nursing homes and psych wards seeking to "inspire and motivate through comedy. I wanted to help those who are in pain to live in long term joy rather than just struggle to be happy."
Initially it was all about the entertainment. Horn's mission was to make people happy and enjoy doing it. He soon realized that simply performing shows that ended and then saying goodbye was not enough.
"When I performed in these places, over and over and over again, I just started realizing how many people there were who needed a forever friend, and that the need was outrageous. After my show, I might have had 3 or 4 extra people with me, and I would say, 'hey guys, we're just going to stay an extra couple of hours and we would just hang out because I knew they had nobody."
This observation about a tangible need led Horn to think about a solution.
"I realized that people need more socialization so I started bringing people with me and that was when I had the realization about the Smile Stations."
Smile Stations are grass-roots associations and groups of people that stockpile Forever Friends. A Forever Friend is someone who goes into an institution and spends time with people within them. They are not simply a visitor, because, "you don't call a visitor at 3 o'clock in the morning if you're having a breakdown, you call a friend."
His mission is to create these Smile Stations in every city in the country. An ambitious goal, the difficulty of which he is acutely aware.
Horn worked for several years developing his idea but lacking in the ability to have effective follow through. While there was a great need and a willingness to take it on, he found that by himself, he couldn't form the idea of the Smile Stations into an effective and maintainable exercise.
"I was very frustrated."
It was clear to him that he had a vision, but needed help to make it a reality. He then approached some students at the local university.
"And I looked at these kids, I said, 'Guys listen. I'm a high school dropout, I am not good at stuff. I have a lot of passion and a lot of sincerity and I have a lot of faith and I know this will work because it's just too easy. The problem though is that if I could have made it work, it would have worked a long time ago."
He illustrated his challenge, "I said I'm coming to you because I want to fly, but I don't know how we can fly, so can you figure out something to make so we could fly, and then can you make sure it maintains itself? And I basically said to them, 'here's the concept'. all I'm giving you is a concept. I said could you guys make this work? And they said yes.
Students at Montclair State University set up their Smile Station and have served as the primary model location and are setting the standard for Smile Stations moving forward.
The Smile Station serves as a main resource and administrative matchmaker for Forever Friends to discover people in nursing homes and psych wards that have "nobody or lowbody" to talk to.
"I think our nursing homes are phenomenal in trying to help the physical quality of life, there's a lot of attention to that. But at the same time the spirit is dying because they have no one to interact with and be their friend, so that they can feel special."
"The thing that makes anything good, is that you get to share it with a friend. And if things are bad, you have a friend who makes it easier."
Smile Stations contact nursing homes, psych wards, and orphanages, and ask if there is anyone there who needs a friend, or who does not have many visitors. What follows is then a recruitment drive by the Smile Station that invites people to learn more about the facility and the need for forever friends.
The first step is for the interested person to attend a 'Funshop Workshop' where they learn about "the inspirational stuff, the practical stuff, so this way the person knows, and can then make a decision at that time." Most people who come to a workshop are already interested in participating and need no convincing of the need.
Forever friends visit their friend at least once a week. To accommodate college students' busy schedules, buddy-systems or tag teams are developed to ensure that someone is visited at least once a week. They might go and play checkers, attend a social event, or just talk.
"It's a relationship. A forever friend realizes how much they are impacting this person, how excited they are."
Forever friends also have access to a variety of resources from the Smile Station including a training program called Friendship 101 and a meeting called FFA (Forever Friends Anonymous) that serves as a support group.
"It's like a benevolent match-dot-com, I keep saying that because you know, it's just making sure that this [interaction] happens. The old saying is 'Everybody thought anybody would do it, anybody thought somebody would do it, and who ends up doing it is nobody'. We're just making that situation happen."
While the Smile Stations are just starting to get off the ground, Horn is excited about their success.
"I know if we got really funded and had the right personnel and raised enough awareness and God didn't stop it so to speak, within a couple years, the intensity of what we're trying to do would not be needed and TAFA would become the McDonalds of unconditional love."
Horn's boundless energy and unwavering passion for this need is evident. He always diverts attention back to the people he's helping.
According to Horn, up to half of the nursing home population in the United States "die without a friend... The reality is, they live from wheel chair to bed and nobody cares. They have nobody."
"I tell people, that if I had enough tentacles to love everyone, I wouldn't be doing this. There would be no need for Smile Stations. I would wake up every morning, go 'Wooooo!!', reach out to everyone, make sure everyone is loved and has a forever friend, that would be great, but they don't. So that's why I do this. I feel like a medic who's turned a corner and just saw endless wounded. I just can't help them all, especially if we're talking about friendship, about somebody who becomes very special."
The amount of good the relationship does for both friends is indescribable.
"It's all about passion, it's all about compassion, it's all about unconditional love, it's all about intangibles, and when they connect, it's amazing what happens in people's lives."
Drew has been working with students from Montclair State University to craft a manual and guide for developing the Smile Stations and is actively looking for support and expansion into other cities. To get in touch with TAFA, please visit their website or connect with them on Facebook.