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National Recovery Month

National Recovery Month is observed every September to educate the public about mental health and substance use disorders and to celebrate the gains accomplished by individuals in recovery. In celebration, the SAMHSA SOAR TA Center extends thanks and appreciation to the 250+ SOAR-trained case workers who identify as “peers.”

Health, Home, Purpose, Community!

National Recovery Month is observed every September to educate the public about mental health and substance use disorders and to celebrate the gains accomplished by individuals in recovery. The 2023 Recovery Month themes reminds people in recovery and those who support them that wellness in recovery encompasses a person’s whole life, not just their mental health or substance use condition. They also highlight the importance of peer support in engaging people in recovery with a vital sense of belonging, support, and hope.

In celebration of this Recovery month, the SAMHSA SOAR TA Center recognizes the value of lived expertise in the benefits acquisition process and extends thanks and appreciation to the 250+ SOAR-trained case workers who identify as “peers.” These staff serve in a variety of roles using their shared experiences to assist others with finding financial stability in their recovery journey as well.  Highlighted below are just some of the ways peers have incorporated their lived expertise into their SOAR work. The stories of these three SOAR workers from around the country indeed demonstrate that hope and recovery are real.  

Ramona Brown

SOAR Benefits Manager, SAFE Alliance (Austin, TX) 

Photo of Ramona Brown
  1. What kind of work do you do? How does SOAR fit into your role? 
    I am a manager for our SOAR department. I assist survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault in accessing SSI/SSDI benefits in addition to supporting one other employee.
  2. What drew you to this area of work?
    I grew with my peer community and agency. After being a survivor of everything, I started services at SafePlace in 2006, and by around 2013, I began volunteering at SafePlace. I was a volunteer in hospital advocacy, and that was not where I needed to be. So, here is the best part of this story. I ran into someone I had been in an extraordinary group with while in services way back in the day. This fantastic being was growing a Peer Support program for survivors of DV/SA at what used to be called SafePlace. Today we are now The SAFE Alliance with a fantastic peer support department. After working full-time in peer support, I took a break from work to obtain my BA in Psychology in 2020, then returned earlier this year as the SOAR Benefits Manager. I am a SOAR Manager at the same agency I received services from over a decade ago. The reason I do this work is because it is personal, and I love being of service to our community. 
  3. How has your lived experience helped you in your SOAR work?
    Ohhhhhh, in so many ways. Some of those ways only a peer would understand. So, I will narrow it down to what I think is most beneficial. That is connecting and building authentic relationships. I am real and human, if I make mistakes, I own them and do better. I give time for our relationship to build trust. I also recognize that if the person I am assisting calls me up yelling and cursing about work or something, that is because they feel safe to do so. Moreover, I do not respond to their life stories with flinches or surprise, nor do I have a stone face. I listen with genuine care and understanding. These relationships allow me to gather the information I need and maintain good communication, which can be very difficult at times.
  4. Any particular SOAR success stories or anything you’re super proud of? 
    I am a new SOAR Manager, and I am hiring a new SOAR Specialist which is very exciting and scary at the same time. I am looking forward to the future.
  5. Any words of wisdom/advice/recommendations for peers looking to do SOAR work or get SOAR certified? 
    Yes, as a peer who is always growing and changing getting SOAR certified is another area for us to explore. There are so many spaces that need the wisdom, skills, and self-efficacy that peers have and share. You are amazing for this work because you have what people cannot learn from a book or workshop, real-life experience.

Kat Heredia

Community Recovery Coordinator/ SOAR Local Lead, Piedmont Community Services (Martinsville, VA)

Photo of Kat Heredia

  1. What kind of work do you do? How does SOAR fit into your role?
    I work as a Community Recovery coordinator which has me coordinating 5 Peer-based programs. These range from peer-led recovery residences, emergency services, and 2 employment programs – SOAR touches people in all of those areas. I can meet people coming through the ER or someone who’s living in a recovery residence who may be housing insecure or in need of stable income. 
  2. What drew you to this area of work?
  • I was drawn towards peer support because 15 years ago, I was struggling with mental health and addiction. I didn’t realize there was a future for me and that I would overcome my issues. But despite that, there were certain people who were able to show that there was potential -- not just life, but also a career. This is when I was guided towards obtaining Peer certification and from there working in the recovery world. It has been the biggest blessing as I love seeing the light turn on for people.
  • In terms of SOAR, I’ve been working in this field for 7 years and had seen other staff across the state who were SOAR certified. I started looking into it because I was helping clients who were housing insecure and I couldn’t find 1 SOAR staff within a 100-mile radius! I started looking into the course and realized that I could maybe do it and do it well. I had to actively seek out training and guidance because those things didn’t exist in my community and it motivated me to be able to finish and provide the service to clients in need.
  1. How has your lived experience helped you in your SOAR work?
    My lived experience has helped me in so many ways. I’ve found that I can connect with somebody and provide a better MSR experience because when I meet with them, I can have a very honest and transparent conversation and use my lived experience and skills to help that person get through the process. I think that helps people to open up more about their struggles and barriers. If I wasn’t a peer support specialist, I think people might hesitate and try not to share as much information.
  2. Any particular SOAR success stories or anything you’re super proud of?
    Yes. I once assisted an older gentleman who had worked for the past 30 years and was the primary caregiver for his wife. He had previously applied and been denied. Though he was good at advocating for himself, he was experiencing extreme depression and had lost his purpose in life. He experienced severe physical and mental health conditions but his medical records always stated that he was “within normal limits”.  But the thing is, if they had taken the time to really talk to him as a human being and not just talk but actually listen (which we peers are great at), they would have realized that his pain was not a 4 out of 10 but was really much higher. Once he was referred to me for SOAR, we put in a reconsideration with a Medical Summary Report and got an approval within 14 days.
  3. Any words of wisdom/advice/recommendations for peers looking to do SOAR work or get SOAR certified?
    Find other people who do SOAR work in your community and learn as much as you can from them. Whether it’s fellow SOAR providers, peers, or clinicians, get comfortable with getting out of your comfort zone and learning new things.

Allison Joyal

Meals on Wheels/SOAR Coordinator, Vermont Center for Independent Living (Montpelier, VT) 

  1. What kind of work do you do? How does SOAR fit into your role? 
    I assist disabled Vermonters with applying for Meals on Wheels and for SSI/SSDI
  2. What drew you to this area of work? 
    I was a homeless advocate and case manager for many years.
  3. How has your lived experience helped you in your SOAR work? 
    I was denied for a very legitimate SSDI when ill for three years.
  4. Any particular SOAR success stories or anything you’re super proud of? 
    I assisted a gentleman who had a lifelong history of mental illness, substance use disorder, and physical disabilities. He was denied repeatedly for almost two decades and through a dozen attorneys. Through the SOAR process, he was approved for SSI on his first attempt.
  5. Any words of wisdom/advice/recommendations for peers looking to do SOAR work or get SOAR certified? 
    I think it is a bit more of a commitment than you think, but it is well worth it. I strongly recommend attending the follow-up sessions as much as you can. It is very helpful to cement stuff in your mind and to learn new tips.