“In March 2020, the Community Rehabilitation and Treatment (CRT) Program got the phone call directing us to take our laptops and whatever else we might need and go home to work remotely,” remembers Joanne Larsen, Community Supports Service Manager. “I immediately made phone calls to the Peer Facilitators, the six people who led and organized the five peer support groups in the CRT kitchen—to make sure they got the same information—and I had to tell them that I had no idea when or if they would be able to gather again.”
Peer Groups are designed to offer support among people with similar life experiences.
COVID-19 has changed everything for the CRT program at United Counseling Service. Staff are primarily working from home, and 316 Dewey Street (where the CRT program is located) has a strict limit of six staff people in the building, with clients coming only one at a time. The robust peer support groups that had provided a significant sense of belonging no longer take place in the big kitchen.
But a kitchen is just a room. Two of the groups never missed a beat. Annette and Greg, two of our Peer Group Leaders, took on the challenge of providing support to those who needed it most. They marshaled their organizational skills and their desire to help, and set up two groups. One took place in Annette’s living room, with Annette and Greg socially distanced and equipped with several phones, and participants calling in for the group called “Hot Topics.” Greg reports that he builds the group based on the requests from the members. “It’s their group,” he says. “I want to meet their needs. The group is run by the group itself, not me. Giving people a choice raises their self-esteem.”
The very popular “Sunshine Social Group” was relocated during the summer to Washington Elms, where there is a mix of UCS clients and others who are not involved in mental health treatment but who are struggling with the restrictions imposed by COVID-19. Annette described the event as a group of clients standing on the porch while she, Greg, and other volunteers led games and facilitated support conversations from the lawn. Annette provided snacks and prizes for the games. When winter set in, so did the second surge of COVID-19, necessitating additional creativity. To meet the licensing limits, the Peer Group Leaders could not enter the building. Instead, Annette has worked with a few of the residents, who choose a movie, or set up Bingo nights, and also serve the snacks.
Jessie, a medical technician at the Elms, says, “Annette and Greg are absolutely wonderful, and all of the residents enjoy doing the crafts and games with them and look forward to the activities.”
Melissa Greason is the owner of Washington Elms. When asked about UCS’s peer support efforts she responds, “they’re wonderful!” She tells us that the residents are all struggling with the restrictions that are imposed due to COVID-19, and how much the Peer Support Groups have helped every one of them. She commented that Movie and Popcorn Night is a big hit, and that the residents all enjoy the activities organized by the Peer Facilitators.
Annette makes herself available for phone calls to offer support in the evening. “As much as they need us, we need them. We couldn’t walk away from them.”
United Counseling Service provides outpatient counseling and addictions services, emergency mental health services, extensive rehabilitation services, home and school-based services, employment services for people recovering from mental illness or with developmental disabilities and Early Childhood Services. In response to the COVID 19 pandemic, UCS has developed a warm line available Monday through Friday 8am to 5pm for anyone living in Bennington County. We are here for you! For more information about UCS visit www.ucsvt.org or call 802.442.5491.