Cascade AIDS Project’s Peer Support Program, led by Program Manager Hannah G., has been a driving force in empowering those affected by HIV in our community. The diverse set of Peer Support Specialists (Peers) are selfless heroes that make this work possible. Running six years strong and expanding, CAP’s Peer Support Program lives by the unofficial motto “meeting individuals where they are”. Whether that be at the hospital, on the street, or at CAP offices, Peers make a point to not force expectations on their clients. Clients served are HIV+, living in the Portland-metro area and experiencing poverty. In addition to the health challenges associated with HIV, clients are often in need of mental health and/or substance abuse support. Peers work to improve lives holistically, one client at a time.
Peer Program clients come from vastly diverse backgrounds, and therefore have varying needs. To accommodate, clients are selectively partnered with a Peer who best complements their personality, history, strengths, and barriers. Through its three distinct (and distinguished) Peers, CAP is able to reach a wide spectrum of qualifying clients on a personalized, culturally-competent level. Peers understand the stresses associated with an HIV positive status. Through shared lived experience, Peers can relate to their clients with great understanding and empathy. Because Peers have been through many of the challenges their clients are facing, but have been able to overcome them, reaching a higher level of stability and wellness, Peers are in a distinct position allowing them to share their wealth of knowledge, coping tools, and positive stories.
Peer’s main focus is connecting their clients to regular HIV care, but they do so much more. Clients have complex health and social needs. For instance, those living with substance abuse problems are more likely to be homeless, unemployed, or live in poverty. Peers help connect clients with resources to address these issues – be that driving clients to interviews or providing an emotional support system during extremely tough times. Some clients have no one else. Despite the challenges posed by client instability and emotionally taxing investment, Peers find ways to make it work. Peers are there to give clients the simple reassurance that someone is there for them – that they are not alone.
Peers have also created outlets for clients, such as a weekly art therapy session. This creative release helps clients express themselves and further connects them to their Peer. Although the final session was held at CAP’s Davidson location this month, they will continue on at CAP’s SW Washington location.
Across the board, Peers find their jobs to be extremely rewarding. One Peer explains the ability to put clients first, and respect their cognitive liberty, gives clients a platform for choice and space to establish trust. In relation to this, Peers feel the program provides a chance to make a difference and take one step forward in changing stigma through empowerment. With all of this however, comes some difficulties. It is hard for Peers to watch their clients fall. Peers must remember to be respectful of clients’ decisions and boundaries. They make sure to not overstep or intervene too much, for it is ultimately up to clients to make choices.
The Peer Support team provide incredible benefit to the HIV+ community. Their work makes a difference in reducing stigma and provides CAP clients with compassionate healthcare. With an outstanding team to lead this program, CAP looks forward to continue this influential work for many years to come.