“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.