“When things are getting really bad I see red.” Sara Alrajabi rifles through an art portfolio, pulling pieces out of their plastic windows. “And it’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s not blood, it’s not anger, it’s just red. It’s just a warning sign for me, and that’s when I know I need to reach out.” She holds up a mixed-media collage. The page is lacquered slick with red paint, framing a photo in the center. She describes her compulsion to create the piece without an idea in mind. “I just started painting red. I actually didn’t know that it was a warning sign until I made this page.” Sara sifts through a few more pieces, describing them as landmarks in her personal journey with mental health. “This one is time,” she says, speaking about an anxiety trigger of lost time. She holds up a self-portrait collage made of pills and band-aids. “This medication on my eyes is my anxiety meds,” she says, “because I need it to see clearly. But here I’m also cross-eyed.”
Sara works as a Peer Support Specialist on Adult & Child’s Homeless & Housing Resource Team. Like many Peers, she has a similar job to her coworkers, but a different origin story. She grew up on Indy’s east side, and describes an early life full of physical & mental health struggles. Born seven weeks premature, Sara endured seizures as well as muscle, bone, and other resulting complications. The major constant in her life became appointments with medical professionals, and eventually therapists after facing bullying and abuse. “I went through therapy on and off,” she said. Sara never fully identified with any mental illness diagnosis, falling into a label-less gray area. Sara discovered a source of solace in art during high school. She found that mixing media helped to form a feeling on a page. Working through her obstacles creatively relieved some of the mounting pressure and monotony of this period.
Even with an outlet, Sara felt trapped in a cloud of unwellness as she grew up. To her, true freedom meant living and working and making it on her own. But she couldn’t visualize a future where that was true. “I was so lost, I felt just overwhelmed by the whole [employment] process. I thought my destiny was to apply for Disability and be done.” Sara describes feeling very conflicted due to the pressure from her family to accept this fate. “[My mom] kept saying, ‘You just need to apply.’ I said, ‘I want to work.’ And she said, ‘I don’t understand why when you can get free money.’”
Questioning her future as well as her sexuality, Sara joined the Indiana Youth Group, a local organization designed to support LGBT+ youth and allies. IYG quickly became a place of refuge for her. It was where she found a mentor, a place to belong, and the beginning of her career search with A&C. Jane Wiles of A&C’s Job Links team one day delivered a presentation on supportive employment to the group at IYG, including Sara. Deep in the battle with an eating disorder and facing stress about her uncertain life trajectory, Sara was mesmerized. “I was like, ‘I’m gonna do that and she’s gonna save my life,’” said Sara. “[Jane] gave out her card and I emailed her as she was walking out the door.”
Sara put all her faith in the chance that Jane would have the answers she’d been searching for. She walked into their first meeting timid, asking quietly if she was in the right place. Jane’s quick response of, “If you’re gonna meet with me, you’re not gonna whisper,” set off a tone of courage for their joint exploration into employment. Jane began by involving Sara in the Vocational Rehab Program and taught her everything she needed to know about applying and interviewing for jobs. After so many years of feeling boxed in by her limitations, Sara started to feel more and more confident by the day. Still, every day she faced inner and outer voices telling her it wasn’t worth it, that she’d never make it. She slowly learned to block them out with the support she found at A&C and her continued self-exploration through art. “[Jane] helped me figure out who I was,” said Sara. “I told her I wanted to be like my mentor at IYG, that I wanted to share my story, but I wasn’t sure how.”
Jane recognized a serious drive in Sara and knew she’d fit like a puzzle piece into the state Certified Recovery Specialist program, where Peer Support Specialists are trained. They applied, and Sara was officially certified the following summer in 2014. That winter, she graduated from Ivy Tech with an associate’s degree. Carrying this momentum into the job market, she landed a role with Noble of Indiana working with intellectually disabled adults. Over the next couple years, Sara moved to a job at Midtown Community Mental Health counseling young adults at their drop-in center. Sara continued to rise to every challenge, eventually outgrowing these roles. She knew she was in the right field, but always sustained a nagging feeling that she could do more, expressing these thoughts to Jane every so often. “Then one day [Jane] called me and said, ‘I found a job that you will rock and roll.’” The job was for a Peer Support Specialist at Adult & Child. It seemed like a full-circle fairy tale, but Sara hesitated. “I felt like A&C did so much for me, that it was almost too good for me,” she said. “I was afraid to apply.” But Jane pushed, and Sara caved, eventually applying for the role in fall 2016. By winter, she became an official A&C employee.
“It’s the best job I’ve ever had,” she gushed. Sara works every day with adults over 35 who struggle with homelessness and mental illness. Her goal is to connect them with services designed to better their lives & provide personalized emotional support. Peer Supports are hired to draw inspiration from their own journey with mental health and/or addiction and gain the trust of their clients through that shared struggle. Throughout much of her life, Sara’s solace from her symptoms was art. Creating something beautiful out of newsprint, magazines, found objects, and ugly feelings acted as an intimate form of therapy in dark times. Now when counseling her clients, Sara often uses art as a therapeutic technique. Earning the trust of a client through sharing their own story is the philosophy behind peer support, but Sara’s is more colorful than most. When she sees a client is ready, she will let them flip through her personal portfolio of collages, and propose making art as a way to connect with one another. “Some people cry, some people really love it. Some people are like, ‘This is the coolest thing ever.’ I’ve had some people ask, ‘Can we do this right now?’”
Not only can art act as catharsis for clients, it’s also helpful for Sara to pinpoint how best to counsel them. They’ll discover insights from creating their own pieces or sometimes will reference emotions and say, “I’m getting that feeling like that one piece you showed me.” In this way, a type of artistic language develops, bonding Peer and client. There’s also the potential to spin off into other forms of expression such as poetry or songwriting. For some clients, it’s terrifying to visit such emotionally vulnerable spaces in their psyche. But what Sara’s able to do as a Peer is show how positive creative expression has been for her own mental health. This can often give others the confidence to explore it as well.
One of the most common reactions to her art and her story is inspiration. Sara gives people hope for success similar to hers. After finding the fulfilment she’d been searching for in her current job, Sara continues to grow in confidence & recovery. She wants to continue making and sharing art that heals, she wants to lean further into her role of helping the homeless population. It’s obvious in the way she speaks about her work that she’s found her calling. Sara’s here to make beauty out of everyday objects and healing out of everyday pain.
For nearly 10 years, Rodger Borders III has served as a Peer Recovery Specialist with Adult & Child Health, using his own experiences with bipolar disorder and substance abuse as the foundation for a unique working relationship with his clients. Trust, he says, is the result of speaking openly and honestly about his experiences—both good and bad.
“When they see someone across the table who has dealt with some of the same issues they’re facing, it allows people to see what’s actually possible and to get outside their own heads.”
As one of a growing number of certified peer-to-peer service providers in the behavioral health field—and one of eight employed by Adult & Child Health—Rodger plays a vital part in helping people find their own paths to recovery from serious mental illness or addiction. Working alongside therapists, skills development specialists, supported employment specialists, and care coordinators, he meets with clients where they are most comfortable to offer his own brand of counseling and support. And it works.
According to a recent study published by the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, peer-delivered support services have become an integral part of the recovery-oriented approach to treatment for mental and substance abuse disorders, proving especially beneficial for those struggling with addictions and other chronic conditions.
For Rodger—whose lifelong dreams of becoming a therapist were derailed when his symptoms forced him to leave college early—the reason is simple: “Their symptoms might vary, but most people I see just want to know that someone else has felt the same way and overcome.” And he has.
Rodger first began to recognize that something was wrong when he was in high school, turning to alcohol and drugs as a form of self-medication before later being hospitalized four separate times as his condition worsened. Unable to keep a job—he remembers holding more than 30 in a single year, sticking with each for no more than a few days—and unable to stay in school, he worried that he would never be able to have a meaningful career.
But slowly, and with the support of his parents and fiancée (now his wife of 13 years), he learned to manage his symptoms and to take the necessary steps toward a better life. Beginning with a low-level position at a mental health and transitional housing agency, he rediscovered his passion for helping people—working his way up to an assistant supervisor job before being invited to join an assertive community treatment (ACT) team in 2004.
He’s seen the relatively new concept of peer-delivered services take shape in the years since, with training and certification programs evolving to embrace the power of shared life experience. He’s also had his fair share of ups and downs in his own recovery, which he doesn’t mind sharing with the people he serves on a daily basis, so long as it helps.
“One reason I stay (in this job) is that everybody matters, but some people get lost or forgotten—and somebody’s got to care about them. It’s not so much a job as a privilege.”
“As a WrapAround Facilitator, I provide intensive case management to kids who exhibit the highest level of needs in the State.”
When children and families need a higher level of services than those traditionally provided in home based or outpatient settings, WrapAround Facilitators like Kristen Ludeker-Seibert connect them with a broader support network. WrapAround Facilitators meet with the child and family to identify the underlying factors influencing the child’s behaviors, then “wrap” the child and family in supportive services, tailored to each individual’s needs.
“I engage the family, and work to identify others who are ‘natural supports’ – that is, people the child is already connected to, who can help that child reach his or her goals. These may be people from school or church; they may be neighbors or extended family; we’ve even engaged a manager at Chuck E Cheese, because that was someone who could provide motivation to one of our consumers.”
“We ask: What is the underlying unmet need? What is driving this behavior? What strategies can we try to change these behaviors? Then we develop plans to help them reach their goals, and incorporate natural supports that will continue to benefit the child long after their services at Adult and Child have ended. We know they’re ready to transition out of services, or to a lower level of service, when we see evidence of decreased tension in the family and improved relationships at school.”
While the WrapAround approach is described by Kristen as collaborative approach and “outside the box,” requiring creativity and flexibility, Kristen notes that the person in this role must also be able to work in a highly structured environment. “Being organized, attention to detail, and time management are key,” says Kristen. “There are a lot of moving parts – a lot of people involved, a lot of dates to manage – but, in the end, all of it leads to a happier healthier family.”
KIMBERLY: CARE COORDINATOR
Before our adult consumers begin receiving services, they meet with a Care Coordinator like Kimberly Brand. Kimberly meets with people to understand what their lives are like today – and determine what services and resources will help them get where they want to be.
“In my role, I get to see the positive transformation in our consumers. I watch them overcome addictions, difficult life events, and mental health barriers to become increasingly independent, with greater self-confidence and an improved outlook on life.”
To help people transform their lives, Kimberly connects them with a variety of professionals at Adult & Child Center, including Skills Development Specialists, Staff Therapists, Psychiatrists, JobLinks staff, and nurses. She also connects them with resources to address immediate needs, like: Social Security benefits, healthcare coverage, housing, food, energy assistance, and clothing. Kimberly works as a liaison between internal staff, government supports and community organizations to help people get stabilized, so they can work with our care teams on their long-term goals.
“My role involves a lot of talking to a lot of people,” she says. “I hold everyone involved accountable to each other. And when a consumer stays engaged in services, and is working toward achieving personal goals, I know we have been successful.”
Kimberly remembers a client whose family was unsure she could remain in the community, due to her struggles with managing her finances and her poor relationship choices. “The family was considering moving her into a group home, but I could see the potential. I knew that if she would work with us, we could help her become more independent.”
Kimberly connected her with a Skills Development staff person, who taught her to use the bus system to get around town. There was an immediate increase in the woman’s confidence, and she began to believe that she could become independent. She continued her services with us, working with a Staff Therapist and Skills Development Specialist to build healthier relationships and become more self-sufficient.
“Her family is amazed at the turn-around,” says Kimberly.
Rodney has a way of reaching the hard-to-reach. As a Child Welfare Specialist with Adult & Child, his work focuses on parents who are at risk of having their children removed from their home, and on youth who are on probation. The common threads between these seemingly different groups are: a concern for the well-being of children & adolescents; a need to teach life skills & coping skills; a need to address the anxiety, depression, and anger that is common among those served; and very often, the presence of substance use.
It’s not an easy task, asking people to change their behaviors. But Rodney does just that – and has been receiving kudos for the changes evident as a result of his work.
If you ask Rodney what he does, he will tell you that he listens. “I just let the client talk, and get their story. Then I ask: What do you think your options are?” he says. “They don’t always know their options. You have to let them know there is a different way. Help them to see all their options. They make their own decisions – but help them see what the impact is of their decisions.”
Rodney has a personal understanding of how decisions influence the direction our lives take. As a teen, he began drinking & using drugs – a habit that continued into his twenties. “I was a functioning alcoholic and drug user,” he said. “I had a full-time job. But then, I started to use drugs more often. And I lost everything.”
In the winter of 2005, Rodney found himself in jail. It was a turning point for him. “I decided I needed to change my life. I found strength in a relationship with Jesus.”
Since his release in 2006, Rodney has stayed sober. In the fall of 2010, he started classes at IUPU-Columbus, earning a Bachelor of Science in Psychology, with a focus in substance abuse counseling and case management.
“God led me to work with people who feel hopeless and are where I was,” he says. “My background helps me relate to them. When I meet with people initially, I share my story with them to give them hope and let them know that things can change and get better.”