Partners in Recovery: How Peer Support Specialists Impact Lives

Brittany, 28, and Kendra, 32, are two of ShelterCare’s six peer support specialists, and everyday they use their past experiences with homelessness, addiction, and incarceration to help others. “Every day, we return to the dark place we escaped from to pull people out,” says Brittany.

A peer support specialist is a person who has lived experience with recovery and has been trained to help others reach their personal goals. A pivotal part of the ShelterCare team, they use personal experiences, both successes and failures, to give hope and courage to their peers.

Peer Support Specialists Brittany (left) and Kendra (right) are also best friends!

Like many of the individuals they serve, Brittany and Kendra each had difficult upbringings where they were exposed to abuse, addiction, and hardship from a young age. However, despite these circumstances, they always knew their purpose was to help others. “My entire life growing up, I knew I needed to help people,” says Kendra. “I can’t explain it – maybe it was my child mind justifying all the trauma, abuse, and addiction I was exposed to – but I knew it was my calling.”

In Kendra’s early twenties, she went through a difficult divorce that led her to addiction. “I didn’t have the right coping skills, so I turned to drugs,” she said. “From start to finish, it only took two years; but I lost my house, my car, my child – everything – including my freedom due to using drugs.”

In 2012, Kendra was found unconscious in a wrecked and stolen vehicle. “The person who stole the car had fled the scene, and basically left me there to die,” she said. “They were also very dangerous, so I took the blame to protect myself and my family.” Kendra ended up serving 39 months in prison, which she said was the best and worst thing that ever happened to her. “During those 39 months, I became determined to fix all the broken pieces,” she said. “I learned healthy coping skills – such as exercise – and I spent a lot of time researching laws, and fighting for my daughter.”

Kendra was released from prison four years ago, and has successfully maintained her sobriety and rebuilt her life with help from community resources. She has been a peer support specialist at ShelterCare for almost two years, with a focus on helping individuals – including those with criminal backgrounds – navigate and remove barriers that interfere with their stability.

When Kendra isn’t busy working as a peer support specialist, spending time with her children, or staying active, she can usually be found speaking on panels, campaigning, and passing bills that advocate for the parental rights of incarcerated individuals, and the children of incarcerated parents. “There are a lot of people out there who have completely turned their lives around, and who deserve a second chance,” said Kendra. “If someone hadn’t put forth the effort for me, I wouldn’t be here; that is why I work so hard for others. You have to be the change and give back what’s been given.”

Each peer support specialist has an average caseload of 40 clients, and they each see about five clients per day. “We start by meeting people where they’re at, and build up from there,” said peer support specialist, Brittany. “Whether they’re on the train tracks, in jail, or living at a homeless camp; we meet them wherever they are, and watch them grow from there.”

Brittany’s struggles began after her father passed away when she was 13 years old, and she was separated from her siblings. “I felt like I lost everything,” she said. “My dad, my brothers, the house I grew up in. And I didn’t get any kind of therapy, so I lashed out.” Brittany spent most of her teenage years in juvenile prison, homeless shelters, running away from home, and constantly moving from relative to relative. Brittany gave birth to her son when she was 19 years old but, because of her addiction, she was without him for a while.

Meet ShelterCare’s Peer Support Specialists! From left to right: Howard, Emma, Brittany, John, Kendra, and Jacqueline

Seven years ago Brittany was determined to change when she was sitting on a corner, covered in bruises. “In that moment, I just remember looking at myself,” she said. “I had bruises all over me from an abusive relationship. I was homeless. My pride was broken. My family was not speaking to me. I kept getting arrested. I had nothing. I remember telling myself: ‘I’m done – this is not who I want to be.’” That day, Brittany decided she had enough, and she started taking steps to put her life back together. She spent a year in a recovery house, and reconnected with her son. She moved to the Oregon Coast and went back to college. “I was determined to eventually be the agent of change. With me, giving up is not an option, and my clients know that,” said Brittany. “ I always tell them they can beat addiction, they can beat homelessness, they can escape abusive relationships. And I am going to walk beside them every step of the way.”

“Brittany makes me feel like I matter,” said Brittany’s client, Tina. “I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life, but I’m turning things around. It’s nice to have support from someone who understands me.”

Two years ago, Tina was matched up with Brittany while she was living in one of ShelterCare’s emergency housing units. “I just remember being so broken up and confused about what to do next, but Brittany helped me get my life back together,” Tina said. “She works with me on budgeting, reading tough documents, and finding healthy ways to handle stress. I don’t know where I would be without her.”

Tina was recently approved for a Section 8 voucher, and will soon be moving into a house with her family. Tina says her next step is finding employment with help from Goodwill Job Connections. “I hope to find a job where I can work with people,” she said. “ I have been taking care of people my entire life, so it comes naturally to me.”

Our peer support specialists – Kendra, Brittany, Jacqueline, Emma, Howard, and John – are proof that recovery nurtures community. Every year, their personal stories of survival and triumph help more than 200 individuals become more stable parents, grandparents, employees, and community members.

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