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Peer Recovery Specialists: Using Their Experience to Serve Those With Substance Abuse

Peer Recovery Specialists: Using Their Experience to Serve Those With Substance Abuse

Bryon Johnson (third from left) and the dedicated team of Certified Peer Recovery Specialists at Northwestern Community Services Board believe “everybody can recover,” and work with partners, including Valley Health and the Northern Shenandoah Valley Substance Abuse Coalition, to reach those fighting addiction.

Anyone facing a major life change – whether at the start of a new year or in any other month -- can attest to the power of support from someone who knows his or her struggle. Individuals trying to break away from drug or alcohol addiction often find success in a recovery program that includes support from Certified Peer Recovery Specialists who have themselves struggled with addiction and now live a drug- and alcohol-free lifestyle.

“Many don’t realize how critical peer services are,” states Tim May, SUD Director at Northwestern Community Services Board (“Northwestern”), a behavioral health agency that collaborates with Valley Health and other local organizations to meet the mental health and substance use needs of those in the northern Shenandoah Valley.

“Those with a substance abuse disorder have no idea what to expect when they walk through our doors; they may have had bad experiences with therapy or treatment, so the peer specialists break down barriers. They’ve been there [in addiction]; they’ve walked the walk, so there’s a natural connection.”

Peer Coordinator Bryon Johnson was hired in 2016 as Northwestern’s first peer recovery specialist. Since then, he has worked with other staff to expand the services offered to those with substance use disorders, including those referred from the Northwest Regional Adult Drug Treatment Court.

“Northwestern does the initial assessment for Drug Court clients and if they are recommended for the program, we are the treatment provider, offering case management, therapy, and other services,” Johnson states. “Clients also have access to our physicians so they can get evaluated for other mental health disorders and medication-assisted treatment.”

Thanks to grant funding from the Northern Shenandoah Valley Substance Abuse Coalition, additional peer specialists have been hired, and now liaise with staff in the Emergency Departments at Winchester Medical Center (WMC), Warren Memorial Hospital (WMH) and Shenandoah Memorial Hospital (SMH). “We have a Memorandum of Understanding with WMC, WMH and SMH, so they will call us when anyone is seeking services,” Johnson continues.

As someone who has been in recovery for substance abuse for eight years, Johnson hopes his experience will resonate with those who may hesitate to try to get clean and sober. “When I meet them, I share a portion of who I am, and hopefully can motivate them to join recovery.”

Lauren Cummings, executive director of the Coalition, emphasizes the importance of grant funding to the expansion of the peer recovery program. “The Coalition received a United Way Community Impact Grant, which has allowed us to mobilize Certified Peer Recovery Specialists throughout our community. With a powerful message of hope combined with the experience of success in their own recovery, peer recovery specialists serve as life coaches, extending the clinical reach of treatment and going directly into the lives of people who need them most,” she says. “This grant and others—including generous support from Valley Health—are truly making a difference in our region for those living with addiction.”

Other local initiatives that impact the recovery community include Northwestern’s Within Reach Peer Resource Center and the peer-run “warm line.” Open since August 1, the resource center is “a free and safe place for those who are in recovery or want to be,” notes Johnson’s colleague Jennifer Borden, the center’s coordinator and another of Northwestern’s Peer Recovery Specialists.

In addition to computers, TV, music, and video games, the center offers SMART Recovery and two peer-run recovery groups, a GED prep course, AA and NA meetings, and Refuge Recovery, an alternative to traditional 12 step recovery programs with a focus on the tenets of Buddhism. “We want to offer lots of different pathways to recovery,” adds Jennifer. “And you don’t have to be a client at Northwestern to come to the Resource Center; it’s free and open to anyone!”

“We believe that in order to be successful in serving our clients, Northwestern has to have an active peer program, so we’re very committed to the peer counselor program and we’re interested in growing it,” enthuses May. “Bryon and Jennifer do a marvelous job, talking with our clients and potential clients…and then connecting them to our services.”

Johnson adds that his work as a peer counselor is more than just his occupation. “What I want the community to know is that we don’t do this for a job, but that this is who we are. This is a passion, a calling. We do this because we believe everybody can recover.”

Need help or want more information?

Warm Line: 833-626-1490

Northwestern Community Service Board Within Reach Peer Resource Center

1014 Amherst Street, Winchester, VA 22601


Northern Shenandoah Valley Substance Abuse Coalition