Strength in Peers hopes to extend reach in the Valley to help with addiction, homelessness

By Kyle Kirby, contributor

Strength in Peers — the resource center devoted to helping people recover from substance abuse, mental illness and homelessness — opened a new location in Luray last week as it seeks to expand its reach across the Valley. 

The organization has centers in New Market and Harrisonburg, where the organization leaders hope to one day add to the breadth of services it provides by opening a group home. The newest location in Luray, which is based out of the Page One food pantry, will be the third Strength in Peers office

The nonprofit organization provides services, especially to those experiencing homelessness or who’ve recently been released from jail. Those services include one-on-one support to help with job or housing searches, complete Medicaid or food stamps applications and “peer support — just someone to talk to to get a better understanding of where that person’s at and what their real needs are,” said Nicky Fadley, Strength in Peers’ executive director. 

Fadley told The Citizen that one of the organization’s core values is mutuality, which staff define as “the sharing of a feeling, action, or relationship between two or more parties.” In fact, all staff — including Fadley, and more than half of the board of trustees — have dealt with one or many of the same struggles as the participants, Fadley said. 

“We use history … as a way to express our peer-ness,” she said.  

Fadley said support through shared experiences can really solidify the bond between the Peer Support Specialist and the participant. 

The process often begins while participants are still incarcerated, although anyone who is homeless or in unstable housing can seek assistance. Strength in Peers’ trained staff perform monthly workshops at Rockingham County Jail, Page County Jail and Middle River Regional Jail. 

John Lilly, the program director at Middle River Regional Jail, said he’s seen changes in people who participate in the in-house program. 

“Often, [Strength in Peers’] incarcerated participants begin to not only hope they can be successful in the community, but believe they can be successful,” he said. 

At each jail they serve, Strength in Peers outreach members speak to the incarcerated about their services, and those who express interest are given an eligibility screening. 

The screening ensures a person is truly in need. If so, that person is paired with an individual Peer Support Specialist. And if the participant needs additional support, that person is invited to a weekly group in the jail run by the Strength in Peers team.

Those groups can vary in size, Fadley said. 

“They [the groups] all have value, you just get a different conversation in each,” she said.  

The challenges don’t end when the person is released from jail. In fact, the reentry process can be just as — or even more — difficult. 

“You go from complete regulation and a strict set of rules, to absolutely no rules, complete freedom,” said Lt. Dominika Seal of the Page County Jail. 

That sudden freedom can be overwhelming. For instance, Fadley said one person, who had just been released from Middle River was handed bus tokens on the way out but no instructions on how to find the bus. 

After wandering for more than 20 minutes, the person borrowed a phone from a local church and confessed to Fadley their difficulty with finding the bus; they also expressed uncertainty about where to go or what to do next, including sleeping arrangements. 

Fadley called another support specialist who “…rushed down there and picked them up and took them to the Salvation Army.”

“So someone went from a stress level of 10 to having a place to rest their head that night,” she said. In such a transitional time, support like that which Strength in Peers provides can be invaluable. 

Of the organization’s role in the reentry process, Seal said,

“We hope it will continue for as long as possible.” 

The Path to Recovery

For the staff,  recovery is a lifelong process. Most consider themselves to still be in recovery of one form or another and made it clear that a “successful” recovery is defined solely by the individual experiencing it. There are lapses. And there are triumphs.

“We are here to walk with others on their chosen recovery path,” Fadley said.  

Ragan McManus, Strength in Peers’ director of operations, often works with the outreach program and spoke about the issues people face upon reentering the community. They may have parole or other legal follow-ups, they must find housing, jobs, and must rebuild a social network, on top of trying to manage sobriety and/or stabilize their mental health. 

The organization’s thoroughly trained staff provides understanding and support from the perspective of shared experience, which allows for a mutually respectful and meaningful relationship for both the specialist and the participant. 

For the specialist, it allows them to put to use past experiences and memories that may have once felt like an unshakeable weight, while the participant is given the light of knowing that they are not alone in their struggles. 

Fadley mentioned some concepts that help encourage this kind of relationship. She spoke of the importance of openness and authenticity, as well as a focus on the belief that both parties have something of value to offer. She stated, 

“When people realize that they aren’t fragile and have something to offer, they are empowered.” 

Not everyone recovers on their first attempt. 

“It’s easier to go back to what we’re so familiar with, to go back to our old coping mechanisms,” McManus said. “The thought of change is scary.” 

When someone stumbles in recovery — or simply doesn’t want to begin at all — it’s because they’re not ready, McManus said. “…and that’s okay. Our hope is that we’ll see them again and that they’ll embrace, they’ll want to grab hold of, recovery.”

In one instance, McManus said a mother, her boyfriend, and her son have had to move forward together. After tumultuous experiences with drug abuse and homelessness, the trio came to Strength in Peers for support. The organization helped the trio obtain the birth certificates and IDs necessary to find employment, and Strength in Peers is helping them find housing. 

“They’re all inspiring one another to get better,” McManus said. “They’re seeing how, once the drug use goes away, they’re much more clear-minded, and they can start taking steps to rebuild their lives.”

Charlie Poulton, a 21 year old Harrisonburg native, had been homeless for a year before he came to Strength in Peers, where he met McManus. After building a relationship for about a month, McManus encouraged him to get his driver’s license and even lent him her car to get to the DMV. 

“Strength in Peers are the most influential people I’ve ever met,” Poulton said. “Ragan saved my life.”

Strength in Peers’ future

While Strength in Peers has helped hundreds of people in the last year, the organization leaders have their sights on increasing that support. 

Over the next three years, they hope to open at least one recovery house for participants, starting with one in Harrisonburg. 

A recovery house would provide a place where “…individuals with substance abuse problems would live together and have support from peers in the organization,” Fadley said. 

It would “fill a gaping hole” in the process by providing its residents a sense of autonomy and empowerment — and a safe place to rest, she said. 

And it would be staffed around the clock and would have strict rules to ensure residents remain clean and sober. Residents would have a safe place to live and receive peer support and case management services. Strength in Peers has begun talks with the local zoning department and the city’s legal team about what it would take to open a home. 

Fadley said such a house could face not-in-my-backyard opposition and zoning difficulties, but she said other recovery houses across the country have found the law to be on their side, thanks to a provision in the Fair Housing Act. Amended in 1988, the act designates individuals recovering from substance abuse as a protected class. 

“It [housing people] would be game-changing…recovery houses have been found to be one of the most effective things for long-term recovery,” Fadley said.

Fadley and McManus said they don’t have the answers to their participants’ problems. They are there to share their experiences, and let people who may not have anyone know that “…they’ve got someone in their corner.” 

“[It’s about] supporting people in their decisions no matter what they are — giving them the dignity of risk,” Fadley said. “It is not our place to tell anyone what they should or shouldn’t do.”

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