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National Consumer Leaders Assist Louisiana Consumers After the Hurricanes

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By Daniel Fisher 10/25/05

Dan Fisher with members of the laCORK team 10/20/05

LaCORK Peer Support Training in New Orleans, 10/20/05

From Oct. 17-21 I was privileged to be part of a training, which NEC organized in Louisiana. It is hard to find words for this life changing experience. Trainers and trainees alike have been profoundly moved by the experience. The people of Louisiana captured our hearts. The creoles, the Cajuns, and the rednecks, embraced us. We found solidarity in our suffering. They all had a story to tell and we listened. The training was itself the embodiment of the spirit of peer support. In that spirit, we the trainers were helped as well. As a peer from Michigan had recently shared, “the trainings transformed the poison of mental illness into a medicine we could share with our peers.

After the devastation of Katrina and Rita, mental health consumers across the country, like everyone else, wanted to assist the people of affected. Joseph Rodgers and members of the Self Help Clearinghouse assisted the persons in Texas. Patrick Hendry and another consumer drove an RV from southwest Florida to assist persons in Mississippi. In late September, Dan Fisher and David Romprey convened meetings in Louisiana with leaders of the major consumer group, Meaningful Minds of Louisiana (MML), advocates, and the Office of Mental Health. These meetings identified peer support training as the major need for Louisiana MH consumers. The consumers organized into the group Louisiana Consumers for Recovery after Katrina (LaCORK). During the next 3 weeks LaCORK and NEC planned a peer support training to take place over a three day period, Oct 18-20th, in three sites: New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and Lafayette to be funded by an emergency grant from SAMHSA’s Emergency Recovery Center (SERC). La CORK identified 45 trainees based on their readiness to take on the responsibility of becoming trainers themselves. La CORK also secured sites and housing for trainees and trainers. Of particular note were the efforts of Denver Noble. He went to his church and appeared on TV appealing for housing. Through these efforts, he secured housing for 12 trainees and a trainer in the Lafayette area. Sylvia Pearson, of Extra Mile, was able to find hotel space in New Orleans area for 2 trainers and a trainee. These were all remarkable feats considering the devastation around them and the stress they were all going through. NEC identified experienced trainers: David Romprey from Oregon, Beth Filson from Georgia, Ike Powell from Georgia, and Laverne Miller from New York. David has ten years of experience in organizing consumer groups, Beth and Ike have developed and carried out the peer specialist trainings in Georgia and many other states. Laverne has experience running Project Liberty the peer support initiative following 9/11.  NEC also coordinated the assembly of a curriculum combining peer support and disaster relief, called “From Relief to Recovery.”  The major topics in the curriculum are Recovery from Mental Illness and its relationship to crisis support, peer support, cultural competency, and warmlines.

There were a number of other benefits, which resulted from our presence there. The trainings gave the trainees an opportunity to share their feelings about the disasters. At the New Orleans site one trainee said he experienced flash backs related to his traumas in Vietnam. Another trainee said the disasters reminded her of the holocaust which her parents had survived. Another trainee, a taxi driver, took two of the trainers on an emotional trip around the devastated parts of New Orleans.  The trainees also wanted to know how they would put their training to use. In addition to applying the lessons learned in assisting their peers informally, the leaders of MML wanted to ensure that peer support was a part of the FEMA grant the state needs to submit. The trainers assisted MML and the OMH Office of Consumer Relations in outlining ways that mental health consumers could participate in setting up several warmlines and peer support centers. The trainers also facilitated a meeting between the officers of MML and the Asst. Secretary of State of DHH for Louisiana, Dr. Cheryll Bower-Stephens. Dr. Bower-Stephens understands the importance of an independent consumer voice. She wants to see an acceleration of the statewide organizing by MML and its establishment as its own 501(c)3 nonprofit. To assist in these steps, NEC is assuring support to the leadership of MML to attend Alternatives. These reps in turn have agreed to share their experiences of working to move from relief to recovery in a panel and workshop.  NEC wants to thank Debra LaVergne of Lake Charles, president of MML. Despite her house having lost its roof and covered in mold, she organized a van of 8 trainees to come up from the Lake Charles area. Daily Dupré, a long-time consumer leader and member of MML and Carole Glover, a board member of MML, also deserve special recognition. Through their advocacy with OMH they were able to ensure that the trainings took place. Our first contact in Louisiana was Margaret Mitchell, Director of the Office of Consumer Relations, has been a consistent supporter, recruiter of trainees and organizer. Yakima Black, president of MHA of La,  gave of her and her staff’s time in grant preparation and financial arrangements.

The plan at this point is to:

  1. MML will obtain nonprofit status. We will use a caucus at Alternatives to help with this. NEC will coordinate a National Consumer Advisory Group to Louisiana headed by Dan Fisher.
  2. MML will prepare the peer support portion of the FEMA grant from Louisiana
  3. FEMA funding will provide support for further training of 60-70 mental health consumers in peer support and their employment as peer supporters in warmlines and peer support centers during the next 2 year period
  4. MML and OMH will plan ways to certify peer supporter to become peer specialists as has occurred in Georgia. These peer specialists would be billable under Medicaid. This would give the project sustainability.