ShelterCare's Peer Support Team: James Bartik (L), Tawnya Miller (C) and Megan Gardner (R)
Each person’s path to recovery is unique. Whether the end goal is stable housing, understanding and managing mental health symptoms or overcoming addiction, there is not a one-size-fits-all solution. One of ShelterCare’s core values is being person-centered, which means that each service we provide is individualized, culturally appropriate and strengths-based to fit each person’s unique needs.
Clients in our Supported Housing program work with a team of staff members to guide them on their journey. They have a therapist who helps them create a treatment plan, a skills trainer who helps them put that plan into action, and, if they choose, a peer support specialist.
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 support team, they use personal experiences, both successes and failures, to give hope and courage to their peers. ShelterCare Peer Support Specialist Megan Gardner described her role as being an, “active listener who is there to provide support and encouragement through my own experiences and empathy.” She goes on to explain, “We are not there to guide any decisions, we are there to support clients in the decisions they do make. You are the one person who is not there to tell them what they should be doing. You are there to listen and to ask them, ‘How can I help you achieve your goals?'”
Our peer support specialists meet with their clients or peers on a flexible schedule as need and desire dictates. They focus on meeting their peers in a social atmosphere, like taking a walk in a park. This approach allows them to work of improving social skills with their peers as well as creating a less threatening environment. Many of our clients might have triggers around being in an office or therapy room, and might be more open in an alternative space.
These unique staff members have relatable life experiences and are available to share advice on what worked well for them or just be a nonjudgmental sounding board. Peer Support Specialist James Bartik personally uses mindfulness and meditation to bring focus into his life and is glad to bring his experience to clients who are interested in exploring these methods.
During her time living in poverty, Peer Support Specialist Tawnya Miller, discovered a talent for managing food budgets and making sure her family had healthy meals that lasted through the month. This is a skill that she shares with her peers. There has been a noticeable decrease in the number of food boxes needed by the clients that Tawnya has worked with.
Megan lets her clients know that it is normal to have cycles: we all have ups and downs, good times and bad. She explains, “I like to let my peers know bad times aren’t happening because they have mental health illness. Whatever they struggle with is happening to them it is because they are human.”
Peer support is not a revolutionary idea. People feel more comfortable confiding in and getting advice from people who have gone through similar challenges. Especially when those people have overcome those challenges and are an example of what continued hard work can achieve. In addition, these relationships are often a two-way street, where the staff are also learning from their peers. Megan was recently inspired to refocus on her education goals after being encouraged by a client not to give up.
We all need a network of support. We need teachers and mentors to guide us and help us grow. But we also need peers, who are there to lend an empathic ear and let us know that we are not alone. The peer support team at ShelterCare allows us to honor our commitment to be person-centered and provide holistic and individualized care to the people we serve.