“We do recover.” That’s the simple, profound message Jolena shares with the women she works with as Peer Support Specialist at the Bridges to Change – Grounded Transitions Program in Portland. As a peer support mentor, Jolena provides assistance to 10 women living drug-free while they get their lives back on track. From helping them get their basic needs met, making doctor and dentist appointments, managing their schedule, and reaching out for resources in the community, Jolena is right in the middle of it with the people she counsels. “I love my job and what I do,” says Jolena. “I like being a mentor. I help people overcome situations. I’m the first person to pick them up from detox, and I encourage them in getting clean.”
When it comes to recovery, Jolena should know.
Jolena comes from a tough background. Her mom was addicted to heroin, and her dad committed suicide. Jolena spiraled into addiction, and it wasn’t until her four children were placed in foster care that she began to take the steps that would eventually lead to her recovery.
“My kids were the property of the State of Oregon for a year before I started to make changes in my life,” she says. Seeing her children in foster care made her realize “I no longer had control of my kids and that made me want to change.” The change began when Jolena entered a Volunteers of America treatment facility, where she says she was finally open to do the work she needed to do.
Jolena moved into drug-free housing through Central City Concern, the umbrella social support organization that runs Central City Coffee, one of the high-impact social enterprises that are part of REDF’s national portfolio. “Central City Concern is a big part of my story,” says Jolena. “Their support programs helped me learn how to be a parent and become self-sufficient.”
At Central City Concern, Jolena connected with an employment specialist, Jered Hinshaw, who helped her apply for the trainee position with Central City Coffee. They also helped Jolena put together a resume and cover letter, kept her updated with job leads, and offered practice and encouragement in the interviewing process. “I was supported through it all,” Jolena says. “I was fearful. I was nervous about interviewing. I was a mom of four, and hadn’t worked in a long time.” It turned out Jolena enjoyed the opportunity to work again, and especially the opportunity to help people.
“My defining moment came,” she remembers, “when I decided I wanted a career in mentoring.” Watching her own parent-mentor interact with Department of Health Services, lawyers, and probation officers, Jolena saw firsthand how her mentor was respected while she worked side-by-side with social services. As Jolena learned, her mentor was once in a similar situation. She was in and out of jail, lost her kids, and went through treatment. “I wanted what she had,” Jolena recalled.
Inspired by her mentor’s story, Jolena applied to the Health Careers NW program that funded her Recovery Mentor certification. Jolena completed training as a Peer Support Specialist. “I jumped at the opportunity, and that opportunity turned into another door opening at Bridges to Change.”
Today, Jolena says her past is an essential part of who she is, and informs every part of the work she does. “I don’t regret my past. I wear it like a badge of honor. Because of that I stay connected to the people I’m helping.”
That includes working with a young woman coming into treatment who had to give up her child to her grandparents while she got treatment for her addiction. Jolena was able to help her work through the legal issues surrounding custody, and then schedule her program entry so she could get on a plane the next day and into treatment.
“I’m able to speak about my own experience to help someone who is going through a similar situation, and to go the extra mile for them. If I can save even one person’s life,” Jolena says, “I’ve done my job.”
The changes Jolena needed to make took three years, but today, she has found work, put a roof over her head, and most importantly has all four children back. Her message of hope—and her personal story— is one she’s eager to share with her clients.
“Help is out there if you need it,” says Jolena “All you have to do is reach out, but you have to want to change. It won’t work unless you are ready.”