By Annette Pinder
Our U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, recently called our loneliness epidemic a serious problem, which began long before the pandemic, that now affects more than half of all Americans. With data that proves loneliness increases the risk of premature death, heart attack, stroke, type 2 diabetes, kidney disease, dementia, body inflammation, and depression, Dr. Murthy’s report and advisory provides critical next steps that individuals, communities, organizations, and governments can take to foster social connection.
This month’s cover features Sara Emhof, a teacher, certified life coach, health-coach, and brain-based coach, who recently moved back to Buffalo from New England, with a renewed priority of living and working in a community where she could experience a sense of belonging. A Buffalo native, Sara grew up in Williamsville, and after high school attended Geneseo College, where she majored in Political Science and Education. “Being involved in student government gave me a sense of purpose and belonging. It also made me wonder why young people weren’t more involved in government and decision-making that influenced their lives.” In an effort to understand why, Sara googled “youth civic education which led her to Close-Up Foundation, a non-profit organization in the DC area, with a mission to inform and inspire young people to be active citizens in a democracy.
Sara worked at Close Up remotely as a teacher and trainer, where she had some wonderful life-changing experiences. “As an instructor for a non-partisan organization, I encouraged others to consider multiple perspectives. It broadened both the instructors’ and students’ perspectives to examine issues from both sides.” After working for nine years at Close Up, Sara returned to Buffalo in 2007, and ran Leadership Buffalo’s countywide youth program. When Close Up asked her to return to perform outreach by traveling to school districts throughout the country, she worked there for another seven years. However, after years of working remotely, Sara hungered for in-person experiences, and left to start a leadership coaching practice. “Then COVID hit, and it changed everything,” said Sara.
Sara’s desire to alleviate the loneliness of working from home grew during the height of the pandemic, leading her to create the “Huddle of Amazing People” (HOAP), bringing together virtual strangers together on Zoom. “I started HOAP with a diverse group of people I already knew — an engineer at MIT from Africa; the pastor of a former church; a Social Studies teacher at Close Up; a Cleveland Clinic neurosurgeon I met at a dance workshop; a friend and Reiki master from Rhode Island, and others. The joy and connection experienced at HOAP gatherings was so therapeutic, that participants decided to invite new strangers to the huddles. Soon, I was being asked to lead huddles for their companies.”
Sara believes we need to foster and prioritize authentic connections, pointing to the United Kingdom, where Ministers of Loneliness have been appointed and companies mandate computer breaks during the day. Her dream job would be to serve as an organization’s Minister of Belonging. “I want to help schools, companies, and communities create cultures of belonging that improve mental and physical health.”
Sara believes that her journey of self-discovery and social challenges have contributed to her success. “I spent 16 years helping young people find their voice in our democracy, seek out multiple perspectives, and build skills to advocate for changes they wished to see in the world. As a classroom teacher, I saw students struggling emotionally, and realized that many skills I developed to foster community change could also create personal change.” Referring to her own mental health challenges, she says, “I experienced my first panic attack at 15, and I did not know it at the time, but had already formed a habit of taking on too much and trying to be perfect at all of it. Tools I have gained over the years have helped me manage my anxiety.”
Sara is now investing in her own sense of community while looking for fulfilling in-person experiences. One place she has found community is at Buffalo Improv House, where she experiences the joy of connection, play, and laughter, something she says we all need. She also coaches teens and young adults, using brain-based training for stress management, confidence-building, social skills, decision-making, and college and career navigation.
Ultimately, Sara hopes more people heed Dr. Murphy’s warning regarding the devastating consequences of loneliness on our physical and mental health, and make connection and belonging a life priority that can help transform our overall health and well-being.