Certified Peer Specialist Aja Alston (right) with peer Anselmo S.

What is a Certified Peer Specialist?

A Certified Peer Specialist (CPS) is a person with significant life-altering experience who supports individuals who have struggles pertaining to mental health, psychological trauma or substance use.  Having walked the path of recovery themselves, Peer Support Specialists help empower individuals to achieve their hopes, dreams, and goals, and guide them on their personal recovery journey.

Aja Alston is a full-time Certified Peer Specialist who provides Peer Support Services as part of the Integrated Behavioral Health programs offered by JEVS Human Services.

Aja’s Story: How I Became a CPS

“When I was hospitalized, there was this guy named Mr. Dean who would come and take us all down to lunch in the cafeteria. He didn’t seem to fit in with the hospital staff, but he had keys to doors and was leading us around. So one of the other patients said to him, ‘Who do you think you are? You like just like a regular Joe Shmoe, why are you telling us what to do?’

Mr Dean said, ‘I know what you are going through. I’ve sat in the same hospital chairs, slept in the same hospital beds, and eaten this same hospital food. I’m your peer. I’m a CPS.’  He told us about being a Certified Peer Specialist and said we should Google it when we got home. I don’t know if that other patient looked it up. But I surely did.

It turns out Mr. Dean was a person who had turned his recovery into a victory, and was using his experience to help others. To help me.

That changed my life right there. I was like WOW!  When I learned it was possible for me to do for another what that one special peer specialist did for me, I got all excited. I started thinking I would go back to the hospital and visit the patients that weren’t getting visitors. I saw a way to serve a whole community of people in ways that I never imagined.  That is what brought me to where I am today.”

“I want my peers to know they are not alone during these devastating times.”

Providing Support, and Hope

“Being a CPS is like holding the hope for someone who might not feel a glimmer of hope themselves. Being a Certified Peer Specialist shows my peers what it looks like to have a diagnosis and not be defined by the symptoms associated with them. It means being able to model what it looks like to have a fulfilling life while coping with symptoms. It means supporting others who may not have someone they can familiarize with otherwise.”

“What I get out of being a Certified Peer Specialist is the satisfaction of providing someone with something that I didn’t have while going through some of the hardest times of my recovery. I get to hand back the hope that I am holding for another when they are ready to receive it. To pay forward what was given to me during my first hospitalization: Hope.

Aja (right) with her peer Kyiesha.

What It’s Like Having a Certified Peer Specialist

“My life has improved tremendously” since having a Peer Support Specialist, says Anselmo. “I feel I can call any time and they will try to help me. This program will change your life.”

Kyiesha, who also receives support from Aja, agrees. “My Peer Support Specialist UNDERSTANDS! She helps me be more open and be willing to receive help. She keeps me on track. My future looks more hopeful now. The whole team is great — I love them all so much!”

Recovery Goals and the Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP)

Before the pandemic hit, Aja would aim to be with her participants at least once a week via telephone and twice a month in person. “I’d take them to a museum, doctor appointments, or even just support them in getting out and about. Some are nervous to meet other participants or have more anxiety getting on a bus — I tell them I have anxiety too, let’s get on the bus together! I try to put myself in that setting before I approach them with it so I can prepare them as to what to expect.”

The idea is to set an activity for the peers that produces progress toward a goal. Recovery goals are established early on in the process, along with what is called a WRAP.

Aja, Kyiesha and another CPS, Josette (rear) attended a Job Resource Fair before the COVID-19 outbreak.

“One of the first things I suggest to my participants is a WRAP, which stands for Wellness Recovery Action Plan. It’s a tool to help you gauge what it looks like to be well, identify what triggers you to not be well, and what can you do to bring yourself back to wellness.

I tell them that I use it and that’s how I manage my own wellness. So they are receptive to it.”

Modeling Community Interaction

“Recently we attended a job resource fair at the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office. There were a lot of different vendors set up from organizations throughout the city. We were there to find out what resources they had to offer, and do a bit of socializing.

“It’s important to show our participants how we interact with the community. I try to come out of my comfort zone so they actually see me coping with triggers. I say, let’s utilize our WRAP!”

Carrying on Despite the Coronavirus

Aja stays connected with her peers via telephone, Google duo and Zoom. “Now, instead of my participants seeing me in person and me being able to physically model how I am going about my day, I am telephoning, videoing and reassuring my participants that even though we are in a state of emergency, there is still another person in the community they can turn to. I want my peers to know they are not alone during these devastating times. My hope is that through our engagements my participants can retain a sense of normalcy. ”

“We also continue to go out into the community to do some house visits to participants that we were unable to reach via telephone, and also to deliver donated groceries.  I am making every attempt to stay as connected with my peers as much as possible.

Aja, Josette and peers at JEVS Behavioral Health HQ on Ashton Road in Philadelphia.

Just the other day we picked the peers up from their home to take them to a doctor appointment and stopped on the way to get fast food before dropping them back off at their residence.

We were modeling the COVID-19 safety protocols the whole time. So, they not only made it to their appointments but were able to see how they should be prepared to go into the community while staying safe at the same time.”

Making an Impact

I never imagined I would be doing this right now. I love my work. I love JEVS. I love my participants. I love making a difference in the mental health field.

Aja believes Certified Peer Specialists can help anyone achieve their recovery goals. “As many of the peers have said, it’s  different when you are working with a CPS who has shared lived experiences. They feel they are being met where they are, and are able to really see someone combat stigmas, self-advocate and develop positive results from focusing on goals. I honestly believe everyone who has dealt with the stigma around mental and behavioral health could benefit from a Certified Peer Specialist.”

If you or someone you know could benefit from meeting with a Certified Peer Specialist, check out our Peer Support Services and contact us today.



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