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A Vermont woman tries to take on the loneliness epidemic in her corner of the country

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

It can be hard to make new friends, right? The U.S. surgeon general says there is an epidemic of loneliness that's been exacerbated by the pandemic. So how do we change that? Well, a woman in Vermont thinks that she has an answer. Vermont Public's Nina Keck has the story.

JEANETTE LANGSTON: Hello.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Hey.

LANGSTON: How are you?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Good. Yes.

NINA KECK, BYLINE: About a dozen people braved icy roads on a recent Wednesday night to attend what Jeanette Langston calls a gather-together in Rutland, a city in south central Vermont. There's hot chocolate, tea and snacks. Four kids play in one corner, while Langston, a 45-year-old with long auburn hair, mingles and makes introductions.

LANGSTON: Garrison, how are you?

GARRISON: Good.

LANGSTON: It's Garrison, right?

GARRISON: Yep - doing well. How about you?

LANGSTON: It's been so long in between - we see each other, and I'm like, thinking, is that right?

KECK: Conversations that start with awkward small talk blossom as people relax.

RUSS GREEN: I love that it's not a bar.

KECK: This is Russ Green.

GREEN: You know bars can - they have been upside. You know, they're social circles. But I've never been a bar person.

KECK: Green lives in New York and has a weekend house in Vermont that he hopes to move to full time. He's not married and wants more local friends.

GREEN: So yeah, (laughter) here I am.

KECK: These casual monthly get-togethers, funded in part by the local United Way, are part of a social experiment Langston is conducting to counteract all the loneliness she believes people are feeling.

LANGSTON: We all have the articles. We all have the TED Talks. We all have access to that, but people are still really unhappy and getting unhappier. So why are people unhappy? And it really came from my experience of, like, feeling a lack of connection.

KECK: Langston says several years ago, when she and her husband lived in Utah, she became friends with a wonderful group of women.

LANGSTON: It made a world of difference in my life, and I thrived. And the people in that group thrived, and we - I watched every one of us affect each other in these really cool ways.

KECK: It was one of those aha moments for Langston, and science backs her up. Research shows social interactions make us feel good and improve our mental health, while isolation increases our risk of anxiety, depression, heart disease and dementia. Traditional community-builders like churches, service clubs and unions have all seen their attendance plummet in recent years. Many social organizations don't include kids or have other barriers that limit who can take part. Langston says that's been a big problem.

LANGSTON: We don't make space just to simply be in a room together and connect.

KECK: So she created Social Tinkering, a nonprofit aimed at creating spaces where everyone can feel safe and included - a place that Harold Niblack, a 60-year-old African American Army vet, says can help dispel stereotypes.

HAROLD NIBLACK: I don't know how many times in my life I've had a conversation with someone and they were just like, you're not what I expected. It's like, well, you never met me, so what do - I don't know what you were expecting.

KECK: Niblack has been helping Social Tinkering with outreach. So has 28-year-old Marissa Arduca. She's active in the local LGBTQ+ community and understands the post-pandemic anxiety around socializing.

MARISSA ARDUCA: I just learned how comfortable I am at home by myself and not talking to anybody. So now I have to, like, unlearn - that it's OK to go out and talk to people and, like, learn how to almost be a human in society again.

KECK: The nonprofit is currently working to create what it calls a community living room, where people with different lifestyles can gather at different times, relax and connect. It's exactly what Russ Green was hoping for at Social Tinkering's recent gather-together.

Has it worked? Have you made friends?

GREEN: I'm in the process. This is my first time here (laughter). So I'll let you know, but yeah, it's just a really super, super positive vibe.

KECK: Green says he already plans to come back.

For NPR News, I'm Nina Keck in Chittenden, Vt. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Nina has been reporting for VPR since 1996, primarily focusing on the Rutland area. An experienced journalist, Nina covered international and national news for seven years with the Voice of America, working in Washington, D.C., and Germany. While in Germany, she also worked as a stringer for Marketplace. Nina has been honored with two national Edward R. Murrow Awards: In 2006, she won for her investigative reporting on VPR and in 2009 she won for her use of sound. She began her career at Wisconsin Public Radio.

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