A group of men meeting in a Women’s Resource Centre may seem like an oxymoron but that is exactly what happened on Monday night as The Free Press sat down with the founding members of Fernie’s new men’s support group, Fellaship.
As the guys gathered together, they joked that everything could be summed up with just one sentence: Men have feelings and that is okay. Although that sentiment seems simple enough, it is actually quite complex as founding member Jordan Vlasschaert explained.
“I think a lot of men and boys are taught that to be strong you have to look after yourself and that strength is associated with not asking for help instead of being okay with asking for help when you need it,” he said. “It is okay to need help and it’s okay to seek connection and not just feel like an island.”
Fellaship was set up in part to help men cope with these feelings of isolation.
The support group was born out of a conversation with the Community Coordination for Safety in Relationships group which is a collection of healthcare professionals from within the Elk Valley that strive to lower rates of domestic violence. The group works together on a number of projects intended to create community awareness and provide support to women in need.
“As the discussion was happening there, they were kind of saying, what is there for men because if we help men to be healthy, then that also lowers the risk of violence against women,” explained founding member Matthew Koleba.
Not long after, five men were commissioned to start Fellaship. Jordan Vlasschaert, Gareth Webb, Matthew Koleba, Rocky Feregotto and Chris Charbonneau jumped on board and went into planning mode.
The group had their first official meeting on September 30, 2019 and when asked how it went they chuckled and responded with, “it was so awkward.”
“We had spent a long time planning it and we weren’t really sure if it was going to be just us,” said Gareth Webb. “We had the joke going that at least it would be the five of us showing up.”
As it turns out, they needn’t have worried about numbers. There were about 10 people at that first meeting and Webb said that membership has hovered around that number ever since. The guys estimate that about 75 per cent of people who come to a meeting, start coming regularly after that.
“It’s funny because you’ll get a newcomer come and they’ll say, ‘I’m just here to witness’,” said Webb. “Once people start sharing and you witness everyone opening up, you just see those people be brave and be vulnerable and they step into the circle and it’s pretty cool seeing that path people take. Even when they come guarded, they realize that the openness allows them to drop their mask a little bit.”
Chris Charbonneau agreed, adding that the main reaction they get from new members is surprise.
“They don’t know what to expect when they’re coming in and the vast majority have been surprised about how much they’re getting out of it,” he said.
At every meeting there are two main components. First, a meal. Second, a sharing circle. Sharing is not mandatory by any means but the Fellaship founders noted that after seeing the other men in the circle open up, newcomers are usually pretty quick to jump on board.
“It’s amazing how when one guy starts to be vulnerable and it sort of ignites everyone else to do it,” said Charbonneau. “I think it’s because in normal society we aren’t allowed to do that or we perceive that we aren’t allowed to do that.”
The group chats about any and everything but there are certainly a few recurring themes that come up in the meetings. Things like health, relationships with parents or spouses or children, parenting and fatherhood, grief, suicide, alcohol and drug use come up frequently.
Although often times men use the support group as an outlet to talk about what is going wrong in their lives, Vlasschaert said it’s worth noting that they also talk about what’s going really well in their lives. Whether it’s discussing the positive or negative aspects of life, there is one thing tying all of the members together and that is seeking connection.
“There is a connection, a really strong connection between community and vulnerability and if we don’t have vulnerability then we don’t have very satisfying community,” explained Koleba. “A lot of people exist on a plane of superficial conversation and although there is a place for that, if you don’t have the deeper conversation, then you don’t have the deeper connection. So in that sense, our group fosters a level of vulnerability that helps guys to connect.”
When asked who would benefit from attending a meeting, the answers boiled down to a fairly simple set of criteria: anyone who is curious and open to the experience. There is no need to sign up, no membership fees, no commitments with Fellaship, just an open and safe space for men to gather and speak truthfully. The founders all said they are happy when new members come but harbour no hard feelings if they don’t stay.
Since launching the group in September, the five men who founded Fellaship have come to several realizations. One is how much they all individually needed a group like this in their lives. Another is how willing men are to be vulnerable and brave. Vlasschaert sums up the third by saying that “having people come back every week, that has really helped me realize that we are offering something meaningful and that what I’ve gotten out of it makes me realize that we’re offering something meaningful.”
Fellaship meets every second week at Our Place, beside the Women’s Resource Centre on 10th Avenue from 6 to 8 p.m. Dinner is provided and any man or person who identifies as a man is welcome to drop in or email firstname.lastname@example.org.