'An Encourager for People'
Peer supporter part of new program of people sharing their own experience to help people in recovery from addiction
By John Cummings, Director of Communications (soon to appear in the Wilmington News Journal)
Mental Health Recovery Services of Warren & Clinton Counties
Looking back, Sheldon Greene had everything he could have ever asked for: a good home, a family that loved him, an opportunity to go to college and play football.
Then, he said, he started following friends into using drugs.
“It started by picking up that first joint,” Greene said. “Then we were trying other stuff. Nobody was using heroin then, but they were using pills. Then crack cocaine came out.”
In recovery himself now for 17 years, Greene uses that experience in his role as a peer supporter to guide others who are working to recover from addiction. Greene is one of eight peer support workers that are starting the new program run by Mental Health America of Northern Kentucky & Southwest Ohio, and funded by Mental Health Recovery Services of Warren and Clinton Counties, the local board of mental health and addiction services. Greene works with clients in the Clinton County Jail and at Talbert House’s Wilmington office.
“I really believe this is where God wants me to be right now in my life.”
‘… different now from when I was a kid’
Greene said he believes he’s been preparing for this peer support role for years. He had worked as a corrections officer, and he’s been in the culinary field for 40 years. He grew up in Miami, Florida, in the inner city amid friends who used a variety of drugs. He picked up his first joint in the late 1960s.
“When my mom found out, she gave me a whoopin’,” he said with a smile. But he still continued using through school and then in college. Back then, he said, there was no one to call for help.
“There was no talk of counseling, or let me call the (employee assistance) program on my job to get my son into counseling. We didn’t have that. Recovery and substance abuse issues look different from when I was a kid.”
Greene went through a lot of ups and downs, nearly losing his job. That’s when he knew something had to change.
“I had to stop. I was going to lose my job, and I had five kids to take care of,” Greene said. That’s when he decided to work on his own recovery and go into treatment.
They trust me, knowing that I’m an addict, too’
Once he was clean for some time, Greene heard about the peer support program. “I had a friend call me about the peer program for the state, so I got online and applied.” He took and completed the required classes, then got a call about what would become his current job. Now, he says, he gets to use his own recovery as a guide for others.
“It opens a lot of doors with them,” Greene said. “With my experience with cocaine, marijuana and barbiturates during the 70s and the 60s, I have a chance to talk with others and build their trust not just in me, but in themselves and their recovery.”
Greene said when his clients find out he’s been a corrections officer – especially the ones he works with at the jail – they become skeptical of him. “I am able to go places mentally with inmates and people who are incarcerated … and show them there’s hope in recovery.
“They build trust in me, knowing that I’m an addict, too. I’m an encourager for people who don’t have hope.”
Making an impact
Greene’s supervisor, Lori Grant, said clients come into the peer support program in a couple of ways. “At the jail, they have to meet criteria to participate. The inmate can’t have discipline issues, for example. When the inmate asks for services and if the jail staff say yes, they can participate in (Greene’s) group.”
At Talbert House in Wilmington, Greene works with people who come through the drug court. “They get assessed, then go through one-on-one’s to determine if they need to do the IOP (Intensive Outpatient Program). Then they graduate to after care.” He works with them in those settings.
“Some of them … the only thing they’ve known all their lives is drugs. Maybe they’ve never been to a fair or cultural events that would embrace them and encourage them.”
Grant agreed. “Some may have done drugs with their mother, their grandmother, their father … that’s the culture that’s being passed on to them.”
Greene said his own unique experience can make a difference. “Especially with my background in corrections, I’m able to go some places just mentally with clients … that other people and peers might not be able to, and show them there’s hope in recovery. I can share things from my own past and my experience that may give them that hope.”
Grant and Greene agree there’s a lot of education involved for the clients. “We’re doing reading, talking about triggers, talking about fears, communication, relationships – just educating them on the different things that’s going to help them stay strong through their struggles,” Greene said.
Grant said she sees an impact from the work Greene and his fellow peers are doing.
“(Greene) is planting those seeds about things they can do and where they can go, and that there are employers out there who will hire them, will talk to them … helping them know there’s life after jail, there’s life in recovery from substance use disorders.”
Expanding the program
Grant said she can see the program expanding, perhaps someday incorporating clients who recover and become peer supporters themselves. Peer supporters are working in other locations across Warren and Clinton Counties, doing work very similar to what Greene is doing.
“The concept of the AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) sponsor is an early form of peer mentoring, too. This is a step up from that, in that it’s broader … everyone asking for help is different, so a different peer approach is needed for each person being mentored.”
The connections that peers are making, Grant said, can help change things for the better.
“It’s certainly a different angle,” said Grant. “We’re reaching them where they are, where they live.”
Greene said everyone can step up and be a peer in some way.
“It’s really been around a long time. People just may not call it that. But the peer role could be in your own home and you may not know it. You might look up to a teacher or a coach that you see and say, ‘I want to be like (him or her).’ That’s being a peer, too.”