Join Us gives visibility to loneliness among the youth

Tom, age 21: “I never had any friends. At Join Us, I’ve been able to develop myself and feel less lonely and isolated. I became more open and started to laugh a lot. Now I make new friends more easily and do a lot of fun things.”

We are speaking to Jolanda van Gerwe, Director of the Join us Foundation about her reasons for establishing this foundation. And especially about the need to give youth loneliness the attention it deserves.

Text: Mariska Pinxt-Van Iersel
Image: Join Us Foundation

Jolanda, what was the reason you started Join Us?

At 15, I was diagnosed with Pfeiffer syndrome. I had to stay at home for a long time. My girlfriends would drop by special before and after school, so they could come and visit me. So I’ve always felt seen and heard. It was during that time that I decided I wanted to become an educator.

Once I became an educator, I discovered that many young people don’t have friends who are there for them. I wanted to help solve that problem. I felt it was important to bring young people together and strengthen their social bonds. You can give them a fish, but teaching them to fish will benefit them for the rest of their lives.

In 2015, I walked into the municipality of Veghel with a plan – and plenty of anxiety. I asked if they would support me in starting Join Us in Veghel. Fortunately, they knew me from the field and were immediately excited about my ambitions. Prevention is very important to the municipality. I got some money and started Join Us on a small scale.

Loneliness is a real taboo subject. How did young people come to you?

If you googled ‘loneliness’ in 2016, you would see posts about elderly people. There was nothing to be found about the loneliness felt by young people, even though it was definitely already an issue. It was an invisible problem. I started lobbying at schools and youth centres, with GPs and organising evening sessions. Sometimes only one young person would show up. So, I took young people I knew from my field of work. It began to grow. There were even youths from other communities at the doorstep. When I approached those municipalities, they refused to recognise the problem. There was zero acknowledgement of the issue.

When I was active in Veghel for a year and a half, the government and media started to pay more attention to the issue. I was asked to go on TV with Brandpunt en Pauw. The topic reached an audience of millions.

In 2019, a post by a lonely young person went viral. From that point on, we created a hotline and even reached out to the BBC. When Covid happened, it became a hot topic. Research shows that loneliness has always been an issue. Before Covid, 8% of young people had long term feelings of loneliness. Now it is at 11%. That’s 275,000 young people in the Netherlands who feel alone every day.

‘275,000 young people in the Netherlands feel alone every day.’

You started out as an educator and now you are an entrepreneur. How does that role suit you?

I come from an entrepreneurial family and did a minor in entrepreneurship during my studies. So the background was there. On top of that, in my heart I always want to help. That’s why I need people around me who think more in business terms to help me achieve my high ambitions. People who take me in the right direction. That meant I didn’t stay too small and was able to move forward. Entrepreneurship suits me well, in combination with my role as an educator. I can achieve so much more. I can put the topic on the map. Help create awareness. Make a difference, together with a lot of other stakeholders. I’m proud of them.

What keeps you up at night?

Finances keep me awake. I want so much more than what is possible now. When we campaign, like the other day, we get 30 times more applications than usual. And we don’t have a place for all those young people. Then my heart starts to break. We have work to do. The people are there, but the money is not, unfortunately. There are 1,000 young people on the waiting list. We need to scale up so that we can grow from 80 municipalities to 340. To ensure that all of the young people from the Netherlands can come to us for help. At the moment, we are deliberately not campaigning in municipalities where we are not active. We don’t want to reopen wounds if we can’t bandage them.

‘We don’t want to reopen wounds if we can’t bandage them.’

Where is the problem in terms of laws and regulations?

Nothing is defined when in comes to prevention. Maarten van Ooijen, the outgoing State Secretary for Health, is now getting involved and joining hands with us. There’s a lot of budget for youth services. They’ve mentioned that young people might not even need to come to them in a pathway if there were more help on the front lines. But they are often on the waiting list for months to get that help, too. In the municipalities where we operate we can get started right away. We have the people on board. The problem is growing although it doesn’t need to. These rules need to change so that young people in every municipality can start benefiting now.

What is your dream?

Accessibility for all young people in the Netherlands. But if I dream even bigger, then I want to take this ambition to several other countries. It is a global problem, in fact. We need to start social health early on, ensuring that young people can build contacts in their own communities. That includes healthy use of the cell phones. This generation is the first to be exposed to social media during their development years. The effects should not be underestimated. Watch out for each other and take care of one another. That’s what this generation also needs. They can also learn this from us, as adults.

What would you like to say to the entrepreneurs reading this?

I believe we can achieve much more. We can help a lot more young people and raise awareness. Being brave enough to ask is also part of it. We shouldn’t be too modest. So, I’m calling out to companies that want to do socially responsible business but are not quite sure how. Contact us and join the wonderful companies that are already part of our network, such as T-Mobile, KPMG, StayOkay as well as funds like the Postcode Loterij.  We desperately need your help.

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