For this addition of Peer Support IRL, we were able to sit down with our own Cary Carner to hear about his experiences after over a decade of working in Peer Support.

Can you tell us about your background in Peer Support?

When I got back into recovery in 2006, I initially thought I was going to be a CAC and did the CAC 1 training.  In 2009 while I was a client at Colorado Coalition for the Homeless (CCH), my case manager said they were advertising a full-time Peer Supporter position.  They wanted someone with lived experience of substance use, mental health and homelessness. My Case Manager asked if I was interested. Because I believed in their mission, I applied for it and was hired.

When I started at the Coalition, there were 2 part-time Peer Supporters, and I was the first full time Peer Supporter. The Peer Supporter role showed me the positive impact it could make to be part of an integrated support team (case manager, employment, therapists, etc.) for our program participants. As a Peer Supporter, I was able to bring “a different ingredient to the pizza.”  My “added ingredient” showed how valuable Peer Supporters could be. This system worked out so well that now there are about 17 Peer Support Specialists at CCH!

When I started as a Peer Supporter, I wanted to work slightly different from the other roles on the support team. I didn’t want to meet people in my office (unless that was their preference).  So, we went to a park or a coffee shop, and it was just 2 people having a conversation. I didn’t want a Peer Support encounter to feel like ‘one more person I have to see.’ I wanted the peer thing to feel different, more informal and natural.

How do you see your new role at CMWN?

Over the years hopefully I have learned a few things from doing the work in a variety of setting with a variety of clients. After more than a decade of doing this work, it is my opinion that most Peer Supporters don’t get the supervision that is as helpful as it could be. I want to be able to provide valuable and supportive supervision to the Peer Support Specialists at CMWN in a strength based, Trauma Informed manner.

My goal is to provide skilled supervision that will encourage Peer Support Specialists to build their skills, allowing them to be the best they can be in providing support to the folks we are privileged to serve. I LOVE, watching people grow. I want to treat each Peer Supporter as unique and valuable individual and will tailor my supervision style to what works best for them. It’s important that I be flexible with Peer Supporters the way I was flexible with the program participants I worked with.

What are your goals for growing Peer Support at CMWN?

My hope is that we continue to grow the Peer Support team at CMNW and make more connections with a variety of other agencies and organizations that could benefit from utilizing Peer Supporters.

These inter-agency relationships are so valuable because no one place can be everything to everyone. If we can continue to further develop genuine relationships with a variety of agencies, we can be more helpful in so many ways.  It would be great if we knew even more people at a variety of agencies so we can more frequently do “warm handoffs” when referring someone to places for additional resources and support.   It’s about developing a network of agencies where we can push the peer movement, show the value of Peer Supporters, and provide better service and wrap around resources to the people we serve.

How has peer support made a difference in the lives of other folks you’ve worked with previously?

I remember one situation where there was a client of mine who used to talk about wanting to make progress, but never really did the follow up actions that would create that progress. I just remember I saw so much potential in them from the beginning of our Peer Support relationship.

When they moved into housing, they were willing to meet with their Case Manger from CCH, but unable to go out to appointments or run other errands on their own. They couldn’t ride the bus or go to the store to pick up medications on their own. So, for about 2 years, I stuck with them. We met for “one on one” Peer conversations where we each shared a bit about ourselves.  We did trips together.  We got to know each other over time, I would ask about their goals and what they would like to accomplish.  I practiced patience with them, meeting them “where they were at”.  I believe people grow at their own pace, and our job is to create and nurture the environment for growth.

Then one day, things just seemed to change. I have no idea when the switch flipped from talking about wanting to improve to actually taking action. But, soon enough, they were reaching out to me to get together and started talking about some incredible changes in their life. The changes were transformative: they were going out on their own, became a volunteer, did well with budgeting, became of service to others, reconnected with family, not just by phone, but in person.  They started taking trips by bus once or twice a year to visit out of state family.  Amazing in so many ways and for so many reasons.

It was incredibly cool to see this person grow and change in so many positive ways.  Here  was a wonderful person who couldn’t even leave their apartment, and is now shopping on her own, n charge of and budgeting their income, AND seeing family for Thanksgiving in another state! That one brings tears to my eyes, because this person is a living, breathing, walking, talking miracle.

There are so many of those that I’ve seen. It took a team of people with different skills (a Case Manager, a Prescriber, a Peer Support Specialist, etc.), and with enough ingredients coming together we can support and encourage personal growth.  It works…it really does.

How has being a Peer Support Specialist impacted you and your life personally?

A lot of people I know in recovery from mental health and substance use issues hit a certain part in their recovery where they want to be helpful and have a sense of purpose. Being a Peer Supporter allows me the opportunity to be helpful…to “pay it back” and “pay it forward”.

Another cool thing about being a Peer Supporter (or Peer Support Supervisor) is that I don’t have to be anyone but ME.  I don’t have to hide or be ashamed of my past lived experience with substance use, mental health issues, homelessness and trauma.  I get to use my past to be helpful to others.  My joke is “This is the best job in the world for someone like me, because all the things that would eliminate me from other jobs actually qualify me for this job!”

Peer Support IRL (in real life) – With Cary Carner