Volunteer mediators help resolve a variety of disputes



“I’ll see you in court. This can be a slogan for modern times, where every dispute, personal affront, disagreement or conflict potentially paves the way for a costly and time-consuming legal battle.

But it doesn’t have to be so, in part thanks to an organization that for decades has worked quietly to resolve many types of interpersonal or inter-family disputes away from the stress and cost of a courtroom. .

“We are one of the best kept secrets in the region,” said Sarah Rudgers-Tysz, executive director of Mediation Matters, a group of professionals and volunteers who facilitate conflicts that can arise between people, whom he says. they are classmates, family members, clients and businesses or neighbors. Disputes between owners and tenants can also be the subject of mediation.

Over the years, the organization has helped mediate disputes between these groups and more, but emphasizes that those involved in the disagreement do most of the work.

“We create the environment and people make the plan,” Rudgers-Tysz said.

The concept of mediation has been around for years, and Mediation Matters has its roots in an initiative in Albany decades ago by the Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers, who have a centuries-old tradition of promoting mediation.

The United Troy Ministries were also involved in mediation, and according to the Mediation Matters website, both efforts were in place throughout the 1980s. Mennonites also participated in the training of mediators.

Building on this tradition, state justice set up a pilot program in the early 1980s and then a permanent mechanism to encourage mediation. The courts set standards and started funding mediation centers. This funding remains in place and helps pay Mediation Matters staff. The volunteers do most of the work.

In 2001, the Albany and Rensselaer County programs merged, and Saratoga, Washington, and Warren counties joined in 2005. Schenectady County joined Mediation Matters in 2013.

Since then, the organization has grown to a staff of 14 with dozens of volunteer mediators undergoing extensive training.

Many clients continue to be referred by the courts. While judges cannot force people to go to mediation instead of in court, they can suggest this approach. The state’s court system has long supported the idea of ​​mediation as an alternative in some disputes, Rudgers-Tysz said.

Mediation is not arbitration, Rudgers-Tysz said. Arbitration is when the warring parties appeal or hire an arbitrator who is responsible for making a decision in a dispute. Instead, mediators help people resolve issues among themselves.

A big part of mediation involves helping participants understand what motivates or motivates the opposing party in a disagreement. A homeowner, for example, who is unhappy with the paint job he has done on the house may be angry with the cost or the quality of the work. The painter, or the contractor, may worry about his reputation or being paid on time.

Mediators can guide people to these other points of view, but the parties must come to an agreement on their own.

“We provide a safe space for them to work things out on their own, reminding them that they have the power to do it,” said Debbie Smith, a seasoned volunteer mediator.

The organization is also working in schools, with mediations underway in districts across the capital region, Rudgers-Tysz said. These can involve student-to-student relationships as well as disputes between parents and administrators regarding special education plans for students.

They also act as a mediator between families, with some cases being referred by the family court. This may involve developing child care arrangements and other issues that arise with child rearing. Mediations, however, are not therapy sessions.

Mediations referred by the courts are free while others require a nominal fee. They are also confidential.

Volunteers invest a lot, because becoming a mediator requires training, then apprenticeship as well as continuing education.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced some changes, at least for now. Before the pandemic, mediators were based in small claims courts, where many disputes begin that can be resolved through mediation rather than litigation.

This has been put on hold with the pandemic. And mediations are done during Zoom conferences.

Mediation issues


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“We have found this very useful,” said Rudgers-Tysz of the technology, which allows people to meet remotely during lunch breaks or other free time rather than going to a mediation site.

Whether on Zoom or in person, volunteer mediators like Smith say the payoff comes when she realizes she’s helped people resolve their differences. There is often a special moment when the opposing parties realize that they can do it.

“It’s like the light bulb has gone on above their heads,” Smith said.

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