A&S alum David Kepes is helping reduce isolation and loneliness among older adults and seniors with his charity, CompanionLink, by connecting them to volunteers through regular calls.
The charity was inspired by his experience with his own grandparents, who contracted COVID-19 while living in a long-term care facility in 2020. His grandfather passed away a few weeks later. Kepes was forced to rely on video and phone calls to keep in contact with his grandmother amid strict isolation protocols.
The experience inspired Kepes to reach out to the long-term care home to see if he, his wife and a close friend could speak with the other residents to keep them company. Over time, Kepes, who graduated from the Master of Global Affairs program at the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy in 2013, brought more friends and acquaintances into the fold and CompanionLink was established.
“The volunteers forge an intergenerational connection with older adults,” Kepes says. “You can’t put a value on the feeling of being valued.”
CompanionLink really took off through another U of T connection: a call for assistance from Franco Taverna, a professor in the Human Biology Program. Since 2008, students taking Taverna’s course on neurodegenerative diseases have visited long-term care homes to chat with and befriend seniors. The pandemic took that option away. One solution was to pivot to virtual visits or phone calls between students and seniors. While some small scale successes occurred, it proved difficult to scale up the effort.
Kepes heard about Taverna’s difficulty finding seniors for his student volunteers to connect with, and the two got together to see what could be done. The addition of a few more core team members scaled Kepes’s grassroots volunteering efforts into a full-fledged charity.
“I am the least qualified person in CompanionLink,” Kepes says of the team he’s assembled. “And that group would not have come together without a little bit of luck and the privilege of knowing the right people.”
Taverna, an expert in neurodegenerative diseases, says isolation and loneliness are associated with a decline in personal health, which can lead to diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
“Anything that impacts physical health impacts brain health,” Taverna says. “A handful of health factors impact at least a third, if not more, of the cases of neurodegenerative diseases. Isolation and loneliness are associated with those exact conditions.”
And while the team at CompanionLink is populated with other experts in their respective fields like Taverna, Kepes’s singular motivation is the driving force behind CompanionLink.
“All the intelligence and savvy and business knowledge in the world will do you no good if you don't have persistence,” Taverna says. “David brought those two things together because of that personal connection. And it has led to the success he's had so far.”
Now, CompanionLink is receiving national media attention. The charity also processes or manages half of Taverna’s course placements through the virtual connection. Taverna says he doesn’t think he would have been able to find the 40 virtual connections otherwise — to date CompanionLink has matched around 100 volunteers and seniors.
For Kepes, the process of growing a charity from the ground up has been a new and rewarding experience. He credits the Munk School with giving him the skills to balance his work on CompanionLink, which only recently brought on its first full-time employee, with his career as a civilian member of the RCMP.
"What the Munk School taught me was how to deal with complexity,” he says. “And it gave me a foundation so that disparate fields, factors, or forces at work were not utterly alien to me.”
Kepes has found other opportunities to reconnect with the University and, specifically, the Munk School in recent years. This past fall he was a visiting lecturer for a global security course with Professor Dani Nedal.
With his father, Kepes also set up the George B. Kepes MGA Leadership Award at the Munk School to honour his grandfather, George Kepes, who passed away in 2016. George was a refugee to Canada from Hungary during World War II.
“It just ticked off so many boxes for me,” Kepes says. “I get to give back to the school, and I get to honour my grandfather. I can't think of a better way to spend my money.”