Lending Hope as a Peer Bridger

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Meet Michelle (pictured), one of our peer bridger’s working under the Foundational Community Supports (FCS) umbrella. Michelle works at Pioneer Center East (PCE) in Spokane, a residential treatment center that provides intensive inpatient treatment for people who battle chronic substance use disorders. As a peer bridger at PCE, she provides support services and resources to our clients that are graduating from the program and preparing for life back in the community.

“I love helping others. Now I lend others some of my hope until they have their own.”  Michelle
Peer Bridger Role
Michelle said, “Every individual has unique needs. What worked for me or someone else, is not necessarily what will work for another person. I use my lived experience on the job, but I also need to listen closely to my client’s needs and comfort zone.” 

She added, “Communication skills are really important to help me build a trust with my clients. Once they trust me, they will listen closer to my guidance.” She added, “I know that in order for individuals to stay clean and sober, they need to build a support network. That is one thing that is universal; no one can - or should have to - go through recovery alone. However, my clients will only really listen to me if that element of trust is present.”

At PCE, Michelle makes sure that each client enrolled in peer bridging that is graduating from the program is set-up with a support network and a plan before leaving. She commented, “I also go over their triggers that can create stress and lead back to a relapse. There are several great resources and support groups in Spokane like AA or NA, Recovery Café, co-Dependents Anonymous, various church groups and peer groups. Other beneficial options to get involved with include pro-social activities that like yoga, volleyball and bowling in the community. Again, every person is different on what clicks for them so it is my job to listen to their unique preferences and guide them accordingly.” 

Lived Experience
When Michelle was 15 years old, she left an abusive home and ended up on the streets. She was desperate for acceptance and wanted to help herself, but her struggles built-up fast at such a young age and overcame her better judgement. She was groomed to survive on the streets and that led to substance abuse and her first felony at 19 years old.

She became a mom, but lost custody of her son that same year. Family members promised to keep him, but ended up putting him up for adoption after a few years. Michelle continued her battle with substance abuse and fast money on the street, always trying to find a better way but kept falling back into her old ways.

Sometimes people are drawn to the familiar, and Michelle ended up in another relationship with someone who used substances and a pattern of domestic abuse. When Michelle found out she was pregnant again with her daughter, she worked at doing the right thing and went into a safe detox program to protect the baby. She then married the father of her child but years of a very dysfunctional relationship ensued and she struggled with ongoing substance use and criminal activity, with no positive supports. 

After one of these criminal charges, she was offered an alternative to incarceration. Michelle went into drug treatment. Despite this program, her daughter was still taken from her by CPS. Michelle participated in a parenting program for young mothers and was lucky to have a wonderful mentor that took custody of her daughter so she never went into the foster care system. 

“Unfortunately, I still struggled with addiction and the law, and knew I could not take my daughter back as I could not stay clean. My wonderful mentor was my “golden goose” as she was already a very supportive mother and adopted my daughter to keep her out of the system. That way I still had my daughter in my life. My daughter would introduce me as her “biological mother” and my mentor was her live-in and very loving other mother,” said Michelle.

Trying to Break the Pattern
The following years included Michelle getting into a long-term relationship with a new partner, but the same cycle of drugs and domestic violence followed her. Despite her struggles with addiction, jail time and periods of homelessness, she managed to stay clean for periods of time while she worked and went to school to get certified for social work. She quit school just three classes short of graduating. However, she has since gone back and finished. 

“I learned the hard way that you cannot fix a broken relationship that is filled with drugs, domestic disputes and dysfunction. I got clean and sober for real on March 19, 2010, but had to serve more jail time for previous charges. However, this time, I did so with a clear mind and a new outlook,” stated Michelle.

Michelle knows first-hand the struggles of trying to connect to resources, the reality of the barriers in place and navigating all the complex systems. She was desperate to find a way to get a home and a community of support and finally found YFA Connections in Spokane. The helped her get into an 18- month program where she graduated, but they could only offer her a short hotel stay after completion. She was then homeless again and slept at the Volunteers of America (VOA) Hope House homeless shelter for nine months and hung out at the Woman’s Hearth drop-in day center during the daylight hours. During this time, Michelle also volunteered at Our Club clean and sober club. 

Housing and Employment
During all of this, Michelle had been communicating with her son and they wanted to spend time together, but she could not invite him to Spokane as she was living in a homeless shelter. Women’s Hearth stepped up and let her move into a temporary apartment for two months. She was reunited with her son for the summer and they worked on building their relationship.

After the summer was over, her son returned to live with his father and go to school, and VOA accepted her application to rent her first furnished apartment all by herself in a permanent supportive housing building. Michelle then worked on landing a job and got hired at a survey center. There were big gaps in her work history because of incarceration and homelessness, and this company gave her a chance to build her work history again.

Living alone was overwhelming at first as she was faced with a freedom of choice and making good decisions on her own. She eventually got comfortable living alone and taking full responsibility for her positive decisions in life. And this is something she now helps others do in her work as a peer. 

Patty at Women’s Hearth lent me hope. She was part of my very important circle of support, along with other case managers and mentors. I was busy with my job, recovery meetings and support network and the hope that she lent me was treasured. It was a light at the end of the tunnel, and this is what I hope to be for others,” stated Michelle.

In 2014, Michelle had a recovery sponsor and many community supporters that helped her get accepted for a Spokane Housing Authority voucher – despite her criminal record. She rented a small home where her rent was based on one-third of her income. She also heard about a job opening at the VOA Hope House for a shelter staff position and was hired on in an on-call basis. 

Recovery Journey 
After a month, Michelle was offered a full-time graveyard position at Hope House that she accepted. During this time, she continued to work on her own recovery process by attending meetings and engaging in pro-social activities like volleyball every Sunday. Michelle stayed connected with her support circle and went back to school in 2015 with help from a community agency to cover costs. Michelle was able to finally complete her degree and received an AAS in Social Work.   

Michelle then worked in case management for VOA, and transitioned into supervisor for the Hope House. She then got involved in a pilot program in jail diversion, worked as a supportive housing specialist and got certified as a peer counselor. In 2021, Pioneer’s FCS service hired her on as a Peer Bridger at Pioneer Center East treatment center.

Jennifer McPherson, FCS Director, shared, “Michelle is such an asset to our team. She is authentic, compassionate and gets to the root of things. She has already impacted so many lives in a positive way and continues to advocate and be a strong voice for person centered care and the community based peer work that is so necessary for long term success.” 

Michelle said, “In my peer bridger position, I connect with clients within the first two weeks and build a relationship and trust. I ask for a lot of grace and forgiveness because I am very open with each person. I remind them that they took daily risks when buying and using drugs and nothing good came out of it - so why not take a risk on embracing sobriety and the recovery process to save yourself?”
She added, “I never want to go back to jail or return to those negative patterns. I know what it is like to hang onto on to people because I did not want to be alone. It feels good to share that now I have learned self-worth and that I am enough. The feeling of self-worth is also my hope for all individuals struggling to free themselves from the grips of addiction.” 

My advice to others in treatment and in recovery is find the support network that is right for you – and don’t give up or leave until the miracle happens.”  Michelle

Tuesday, April 18, 2023