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Two Westchester County departments have collaborated to launch what is believed to be a first-in-the-nation program that trains former prisoners with addiction to become peers to help others facing similar challenges.
The program, “Lives Forward,” brings together the Department of Community Mental Health and Corrections to help train peers with the goal of having a better chance of improving the lives of others and reducing recidivism.
Monday was the first day of the program with 10 peers having started work.
Joseph Glazer, the deputy commissioner for the Department of Community Mental Health, said for people who have been incarcerated due to addiction and substance abuse issues, they long for a chance for opportunity and redemption.
“This is the opportunity to learn something new, to learn, literally, a trade in serving others and to go out into the community and help individuals similarly situated to yourself to move forward in our recovery,” Glazer said.
In addition to helping those who have been released, the program helps the county fill a shortage of trained paraprofessionals for mental health and addiction treatment.
Peer supports have become common to help those with addiction and mental health issues, accounting for the shortage of properly trained and certified peers for hospitals, residential providers, outpatient clinics, mobile crisis teams and the courts, according to county officials.
Nory Padilla, the county’s first deputy corrections commissioner, said being able to train people while they are still at the Westchester County Jail is not just therapeutic for the released inmate and the people they are trying to help, but provides them with a viable career path.
“(They) really get these individuals ready to be available and to be ready for the commitment of participating in this dual certification program that will put each of them on a path of a professional journey and allows them the opportunity to really identify their strengths, identify the underlying factors that may have brought them where they are in their lives, and then put them on the road not only to recovery and rehabilitation, but to be mentors and support in the community where individuals are living the same types of experiences,” Padilla said.
Training involves more than 90 hours of classroom-style training. Those who go through the peer training are selected by county Corrections officials and program staff.
The certification programs are overseen through the state Office of Mental Health, which certifies peer specialists, and the state Office of Addiction Services and Supports (OASAS), which certifies recovery peer advocates.
Working with the county Department of Community Mental Health, the community providers will ensure the dual-certified peers are connected with potential employers and presenting employment opportunities to them as para-professionals.
Funding for the program is coming from Westchester County’s opioid lawsuit settlement funds.
County Executive George Latimer lauded the program and the officials in each of the departments for making it happen.
“This is one more example of not just a speech about what government should do, but how do you figure out in the real world how to take resources of skill, time and money and employ them to get a positive outcome,” he said.
One representative of an organization that works in the mental health professional, Amy Colesante, CEO of the Mental Health Empowerment Project, Inc., called the program “a groundbreaking moment for our community.”
“We’re not just providing certifications; we’re igniting hope, breaking down barriers and empowering individuals with lived experiences to shape a positive future,” Colesante said. “Together with our partners, we are pioneering a program that not only transforms lives within the Westchester County Jail, but sends ripples of positive change throughout our community.”
Martin has more than 30 years experience covering local news in Westchester and Putnam counties, including a frequent focus on zoning and planning issues. He has been editor-in-chief of The Examiner since its inception in 2007. Read more from Martin’s editor-author bio here. Read Martin’s archived work here: https://www.theexaminernews.com/author/martin-wilbur2007/