Last week on Oct. 17, we celebrated Global Peer Support Celebration Day.
A Peer Specialist is a person who is actively engaged in their own recovery, allowing them to relate on a personal basis to the struggles Veterans may be facing. The annual recognition day celebrates peer support and recognizes the importance of these staff members’ work in helping peers with mental health, addictions or trauma-related challenges. Their work helps Veterans move along the continuum of recovery and inclusion into communities of their choosing—aiding their recovery journey by sharing their life experiences, empowering others to identify their strengths and supporting and resources to improve their quality of life.
The Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center has 13 Peer Support Specialists that are part of the medical center’s mental health service line, including two new staff in this area. Andy Draper works at the Hinesville VA Outpatient Center serving Veterans in the outpatient mental health clinic and those in the Psychosocial Rehabilitation and Recovery Program (PRRC) services. Draper previously worked at the VA in White City, Oregon where he worked for six years as a Certified Peer Specialist. Anthony Hedges works as a Peers Support Specialist in the Inpatient Recovery Unit at the Charleston VAMC hospital. He previously supported Veterans in their recovery through peer support at the VA in Chillicothe, Ohio for seven years.
“I always put the Veterans first. If you got that, you got it,” said Draper. “My role is all about possibilities, helping Veterans I work with to see possibilities. I convey hope, empowerment and resilience – that’s what changes lives.”
Both Draper and Hedges joined the team at Charleston VAMC with many years of peer support experience, including serving in leadership roles. At the national level, Hedges and Draper have been very active on various national peer support committees and have given presentations at numerous VA Peer Support Conferences.
“From the first time I saw an opening for a Peer Support Specialist, I knew that was what I wanted to do,” said Hedges. “The services I received from the VA saved my life and I wanted to come alongside other Veterans, wherever they are in the process, and help them move forward”.
Conveying hope and making a good connection with other Veterans is central to the work of Peer Support Specialists.
“When I first started working as a Peer Specialist, I worked in PRRC, a psychosocial rehabilitation and recovery program, it was a good fit as I could see Veterans make progress over a significant period of time,” said Hedges. “Now, on the inpatient unit, it is different because it is more short-term, but I can make a huge contribution by providing hope to those who may be at a very low point in their life.”
Charleston VAMC supports the value that Peer Support Specialists add to Veteran treatment and plans to continue to utilize these staff throughout areas of mental health to support Veterans in their recovery.