The Mental Benefits of Friendship

By Emily Ober

How social connections improve our health

Pictured: Photos by Breanne Johnson

“Just go out and meet people!”

It’s something we hear all the time. It sounds so easy, but when it comes time to actually go out and meet someone, the question looms: “Where do I start?”

According to the American Psychological Association, friendships are an integral part of our mental and physical health. Friendships can prevent depression and can reduce the risk of heart problems and chronic diseases. Isolation, on the other hand, increases the risk for heart attack, stroke and premature death.

Social disconnection has been rising since before Covid-19. In 2021, the American Survey Center released a survey showing that since 1990, there has been a 3% rise in adults in the U.S. who say they don’t have any close friends, bringing the number to 12%. The pandemic undoubtedly exacerbated isolation in adults, adolescents and children, which continued even after the pandemic officially ended in May 2023. And as we settle back into normalcy, we find ourselves looking for those friendships and connections once more.

Following Covid-19 new groups have emerged, while other long-standing ones have carried on. Finding people
you can bond and connect with seems daunting.

Knowing where to start, how to drum up a conversation, and where to find the courage to get out there are all hurdles that can seem impossible to clear. But taking that leap and forming new friendships benefits your mental and physical health. Even a brief social interaction once a week or every other week can improve your mental health.

Begin by joining a new group. There are countless groups in Waco — some cultivating a shared interest, some offering networking, some providing spiritual connection, and some providing friendship and community. If you find that what you need is lacking among the established groups, build that group yourself.
Your people are out there. You just have to find them.

Shared interest

Fabled Bookshop & Cafe’s Order of the Owl YA Book Club

A shared interest is perhaps the easiest way to form connections with others, and there’s something about books that brings people together so easily. A book club offers a space where people can collectively come together over something that everyone in the group experienced, but then approach it with different opinions and interpretations. It’s a place where people can gather to share their thoughts and be open and vulnerable.

“It was a combination of wanting to create a community and a connection point for people to engage in and really appreciate well-written stories in conjunction with wanting specifically to explore young adult literature,” said Avery Shelburne, children’s book buyer for Fabled who co-runs The Order of the Owl. “It’s almost instant when you can connect over a character or a story or a plotline or a theme. Your walls come down, and it’s a cathartic, safe way to talk about your emotions, your feelings, your processes or your own experiences in a way that feels safer because it’s about a character or a story, but you’re also able to tap into your own experiences or emotions around your own stories.”

Started in May 2021, The Order of the Owl has seen a lot of new faces over the years, but it has also said goodbye to others as life takes them on a new course. Though they’ll often Zoom in for the week’s discussion. Because in this group, it’s about more than the books they read.

“We talk about books, but we also talk about life,” said new member Tess Hebert.

Members gather ahead of the 6:30 p.m. start time, catching up on what’s happened in each other’s lives since the last meeting. They even stay after the discussion to continue chatting, sometimes to the point that they need reminding that the bookshop is preparing to close for the night.

Gabriella Brooks, one of the original members of The Order of the Owl, has taken on the role of co-running the biweekly discussions alongside Shelburne.

“It’s been really fun to see different friend groups and different connections being made and sustained, not only within the book club itself, but outside of the book club,” Brooks said. “I think ultimately it’s helped bridge the gap for a lot of individuals that maybe are a little scared or shy to make new friends.”

Making that bond with likeminded people over something as simple as a book can blossom into tight-knit friendships. There are several other book clubs in Waco, some that meet in person and others that meet online. Opening yourself up to vulnerability and letting others in allows deep connections. Engaging in discussions that rely on this vulnerability brings about natural friendships and relationships.

“We are always hoping that new people come out and find us,” Brooks said. “Even if you’re hesitant or scared, or you’re just unsure of venturing out and trying something new, we would love to have you.”

Check out the current read at fabledbookshop.com/ya-book-club and see when the next meeting is scheduled.

“I’m a mom of two young kids, and sometimes it’s hard because I’m away from them, but every single time I come, it absolutely brings me so much life and joy. Our group is hilarious. There’s such a depth and vulnerability that people bring to the group. I think specifically the people who have been drawn to our group and the people who have committed to our group are people who genuinely hold space for other people’s opinions, stories, backgrounds. It’s a very safe place to ask hard questions or to bring hard perspectives.”
Avery Shelburne

“It’s fun to have something to look forward to. It’s nice to have that brighter spot in your week where you know that you’re going to get together and have genuine, authentic connections and discussions with people that you care about on a weekly basis. I think that’s evident in the fact that most of the time, our groups still tend to meet up on our off days because we crave that space and environment that we’ve created for each other.”
Gabriella Brooks

“I think it’s finding community and fellowship with people who enjoy the same things as you do. In a small place like Waco it’s important to find community with those who have similar interests. Fabled and the book club has really provided us with a community that we can enjoy each other and have friends outside of.”
Kelsey Hancock

“As an older 20s-year-old woman, trying to find friends in Waco is difficult, and so to have this group where everyone has the same interest, it’s really nice. They’re all so welcoming. I’ve only been about four times, and already everyone has just brought me in. They include me in conversations, and they give me recommendations for books, which really shows they’re thinking about me. It’s been a real haven of sorts to know that at least once a week, I can go somewhere where there’s going to be nice people that will hang out and talk with me.”
Samantha Caldwell

“I didn’t know anyone other than my partner. I’ve been here for six months now, and I did not have any sort of community. I had visited Fabled and asked about book club, but then I had come to an event here and met a couple people from book club. Everyone was super nice and welcoming, and that’s when I decided to join. The day that I met everyone, there were deep conversations. Three hours prior to coming to book club, I did not feel good about living here at all. Being able to meet people and have something to look forward to outside of my work and my home and connecting with people made me confident that I will be able to live here long term.”
Tess Hebert

Networking

Women of Waco

Our jobs encompass a huge portion of our lives. According to Jessica Pryce-Jones’ “Happiness at Work,” the average person will spend 90,000 hours — roughly one-third of their lives — at their job. Work is where we often form connections and relationships with others.

Networking is a great way to advance your career and your own business, but it also forms bridges between our professional and personal lives. Women of Waco was founded on the idea of creating a space for professional women to come together not as people trying to promote their business, but looking to make personal connections.

“We are a group of women empowering and encouraging one another,” said Jennifer Snyder, president of Women of Waco. “What is so interesting is I’ve never been in another group that large where everyone is just so loving and accepting. These women stand beside you and stand behind you, and it’s really a beautiful thing. This is my fourth year as president, and it’s grown, and we all work together, and it’s just a cohesive group of lovely ladies.”

Though you will find a room filled with women, this large group is a catalyst for making more intimate friendships.

“It’s the board members that I’ve become the closest to because I’m with them a little bit more,” Snyder said. “Women of Waco is a really big group, and so it’s hard to make intimate friendships in that capacity, but on the board, I have made great friends.”

As a visitor, you can see those close groups that have been built over the years. In the half hour before the program starts, hugs are exchanged as friends catch up with one another before the monthly meeting. Shoutouts are given at the end, and though there is mention of that person’s business, it’s really the person who’s being recognized.

Member Amie Kelly explains that she came to this group for professional reasons, but gained so much more.

“I’m in this group because of my business,” Kelly said, “but what you find is you want to do business with people you trust and people you make connections with, and so this group has helped me grow that specific aspect. I think it’s important to not just be in a group like this specifically for ‘What can I do for me and for my business?’ but how can I connect with other women and build that trust and build that friendship first? And it doesn’t always lead to business, and that’s OK.”

“Friendships before money,” Snyder said. “If you show up to Women of Waco hoping to make a sale, you’re in the wrong room because it’s about building relationships. We’re there to build the trust, we’re there to establish a relationship, and then the business comes later.”

See the next scheduled meeting at womenofwaco.org and RSVP to join.

“I’ve made connections with women that I think are going to be lifelong friendships. Women that have poured into me and been watering me and empowering me. It really is about the connection; it really is about the relationships.”
Kelsie Siegel

“In August of 2019 Women of Waco was my first thing to ever do to get engaged with women and the Waco community of networking. Five years later I’m still here. As a new person it helped me get connected. Moving here seven hours away from all my friends and family and not knowing a soul in this town, this was the community that got me plugged in.”
Ashley Ulrey

“We get some business from here, but more than anything, we get these lasting relationships. We also have a Women of Waco networking group on Wednesday nights. It’s a smaller group, and it’s a way that we really get to know each other a little bit better.”
Diane Jenkins

“When I come in, it makes me happy because I’m seeing new people, meeting new people, but I’m also seeing old friends and being able to catch up and share a meal with family. It’s like having a bunch of sisters.”
Stephanie Tolbert

“I think good, solid, loyal friend groups are super important because I think it serves as therapy. They can pray for you in hard times. They can be there for you.”
Amie Kelly

“I’ve made a lot of very good friends. I’ve been [with Women of Waco] for a very long time, but I’ve made some fantastic friends along the way who will be forever friends, even some that aren’t in the group anymore.”
Jennifer Snyder

Mentorship

The Well at First Woodway Baptist Church

Life groups provide strong spiritual connection with others, and mentorships allow intimate relationships to form with someone we come to trust and grow alongside. First Woodway Baptist Church offers several different programs under the umbrella The Well. From mentorships to Bible studies to events, there are many ways to connect with other women, no matter what stage of life you’re in.

“We have our mentoring program, which is called Flourish, and that’s where we match women and they can meet one-on-one for an entire year,” said Elizabeth Oates, Minister of Discipleship, Women and Marriage for First Woodway. “We just started Flourish Group where one mentor meets with two or even three mentees. We also have various women’s Bible studies. The Dwelling is for moms with young children — anywhere from babies through early elementary school — and they meet once a week. We have another Bible study that meets on Monday morning, one that meets Wednesday morning, and then we have a couple that meet on Wednesday night.”

Oates saw a need at First Woodway after the former women’s minister, Doris King, retired and then Covid hit.

“They had been without a women’s ministry for about three years,” Oates said. “I came on staff in December 2021. Talking to a lot of women and assessing their needs, what a lot of women wanted was just connection. Craving community. I think the running theme among all the women that I was talking to is that they were really lonely.”

While big events draw big crowds, Oates knew they needed something deeper, something that would forge those much-needed connections.

Oates said, “Events are great and fun, but I tell women you can go to an event and then leave feeling just as lonely as you did when you got there. You’re not going to make great connections at events. You might meet someone, you might have a good conversation, but it’s not really going to lead to lifelong connection. But a mentor and a mentee, where you are putting in the daily, weekly, monthly work to really get to know someone and challenge them and pray with them and confess with them, that’s really where you’re going to form a relationship.”

The Well offers the big events where attendees can learn valuable lessons and broaden their social sphere, but that’s only a starting point. Relationships are founded in those small groups that the mentorship program offers. In The Dwelling, several friendships are formed between moms in their small groups as they connect and bond with one another, leading to meeting organically outside of the weekly group setting. And through Flourish, mentors and mentees commit to a year together, but Oates has seen the relationships far outlast that time.

“One of my favorite stories is that we match women for our mentoring program once a year, and then we have a big reveal party where they get to meet,” Oates said. “I was short about 15 mentors, so I had to do a lot of cold calling, trying to recruit more mentors, and I have this one specific mentor in mind for a mentee. The mentor was hesitant, but I said, ‘I think you’d be perfect for this particular person, Just trust me, you can do this.’ We got to the match party, and they ran into each other. They knew each other, and I didn’t even know that when I recruited this person. Then the big reveal happens, and they are hugging, and they’re so excited. The mentee comes up to me, and she has tears in her eyes, and she said, ‘When I walked in and I saw her, I prayed she would be my mentor. I’ve known her forever, and I’ve always wanted someone like her to mentor me.’ They’ve been really fun to watch. They get together regularly, they have the best time together, and it really has been a sweet friendship to continue to watch grow and develop.”

To find programs and a list of events for The Well, visit firstwoodway.org/women.

“The Well has become family to me. I think of these ladies as my sisters. Sisters don’t always agree on everything, but we have each other’s backs, and we belong to each other. It’s the sense of belonging to something bigger than myself that richly blesses my heart and life.”
Monica Matthews

“I started April of 2022. It connected me with a lifelong friend who has mentored me through being a new mom, a wife and a Christian woman. Life has so many challenges for each of those chapters in our lives, and The Well has provided many opportunities to connect with other women going through the same things. The community that The Well has provided is priceless, and I’m so grateful for it.”
Heather Wilson

“My main connections who have literally become friends are the eight mentor moms who ‘anchor’ each of the tables. These are older, experienced moms who facilitate discussion and cultivate that community. The moms at the tables have definitely developed close friendships outside of class. They meet socially through play dates and girls’ night out. They bring meals to one another in times of challenge, and they keep up with one another whether The Dwelling is currently meeting or not. Basically The Dwelling is a conduit for developing friendships with a relationship with God being the sun they all revolve around!”
Vicki Lassiter

“I have been involved in mentoring one-on-one and with groups. Mentoring creates a space to build close relationships. It can provide opportunities to make friendships with different generations. In my life group we have bonded through the years and now feel like family. We make sure no one feels alone. Relationships, whether through mentoring or life groups, are the antidote to loneliness and many emotional problems.”
Nelwyn Reagan

“I am a huge fan of our mentoring program. It’s probably my favorite thing that we do. It seems really intimidating, but I always tell them if you are a mom or a sister or even a friend, that you’ve probably been mentoring without knowing it. There’s nothing formal about it. It’s very natural. It’s just walking alongside someone and sharing your life experience with them, pointing them to Scripture, praying with them, praying for them and really just being a good listener and be there for them.”
Elizabeth Oates

Community

Waco Wednesday Homeschool Moms

Forming social groups is not only beneficial on a personal level, but also for the whole family. When Breanne Johnson decided she was going to homeschool her two children, she knew that she would also have to provide social interaction alongside their education.

“It’s given our kids consistent friendship,” Johnson said. “I say they have reached cousin status, where they’re so comfortable with each other that they know they can argue or bicker like siblings or cousins would, and they’re still friends. I feel like they’ve really grown their friendship and then the moms as well. Even from that, our husbands have become friends and formed relationships.”

It was two years ago this spring that Johnson realized she had to fill that need for both her kids and herself.

“Coming out of the end of Covid, I thought, ‘What does life look like now?’” Johnson said. “For me, it felt like a lot of friendship grew and shifted apart as we entered that age where some people were [sending their kids] to school, some were still homeschooling. When I first started I had friends, but not a big group that I was super close to. This has given me a core group of friends and community that have been consistent and have grown together and have experienced a lot of life together.”

The Waco homeschool community is large, and every family homeschools in their own way. The group offers a place where they can all get help.

Ashley Cornelius talked about being able to bounce ideas off others when she needed a little guidance while her kids got their much-needed social interaction.

“I really feel like it’s created a community of support and encouragement,” Cornelius said. “I feel like because we meet every week, we are really able to do life together on a deeper connection than just meeting up like once a quarter.”

Friendships within the group have even expanded beyond the Wednesday get-togethers for the kids.

“From that group, several of us also have a Bible study going on,” Cornelius said. “We’ve had Bible study threads going back and forth on different challenges on how to better ourselves as people, better our relationships with our husbands, so it’s definitely not just a single level of ‘This is a homeschool group.’”

Johnson says not only her friendships but also those of others in the group have grown in different ways as well.

“It’s not a networking group, but it has definitely put the right people in each other’s lives,” Johnson explained. “Like someone has a baby, everyone’s bringing that person a meal. I moved, and people were helping me watch my kids.”

Like Johnson, Sonja Smith says sometimes all it takes is assessing your own needs and then reaching out to others who have that same gap in their life and building that group.

“This homeschool co-op started very organically by a group of moms looking for encouragement and community as well as friendships for their children,” Smith said. “Our co-op meetups became the highlight of our week, where we were getting out into nature or exploring new parts of Waco. We have moms and kids of all ages and backgrounds using different curriculums, but we all have the same goals and dreams for our families, and that unites and encourages us.”

“In a year that could have felt very isolating and discouraging, the love, friendship and support that we felt from this group is a huge reason why we continued with homeschooling again.”
Sonja Smith

“I live an hour from Waco, and it was pretty isolating. It really is important, especially as women, because we are created as social people. I think naturally we are inclined to [be social], and it never benefits us to isolate ourselves. It’s important to be very intentional about and be open to making new connections and friendships and relationships because it benefits us, which in turn benefits our family.”
Ashley Cornelius

“I think the biggest thing is I just feel seen. I feel a lot less alone, especially knowing that we’re all able to be very open and honest. For me, if I kind of start to disconnect, it’s really easy for me to stay there, but if I have that present community and friendship, it’s a lot better for me and my mental health, and I don’t feel as overwhelmed.”
Breanne Johnson 

“I just threw myself out there and showed up to a group of strangers and absolutely loved it. It is so important to have community. It can be hard to have community when you homeschool, but it is so great to have people to reach out to and to encourage you. Same with our kids. It’s great to have a group of kids that they can grow up with and do life with, just like adults.”
Alysha Hayse