To celebrate Black History Month, we’ve been highlighting some of the Black mental health heroes working at LifeWorks NW programs across the Portland area. Today we’d like to introduce you to Emma, a Certified Recovery Mentor (CRM) at Project Network.
As a CRM, Emma uses her lived experience of recovery to help support others struggling with substance use disorder. When new clients enter Project Network, Emma greets them and conducts a needs assessment.
“It’s to get an idea of what the client is going to need throughout her treatment to make her be more successful.”
According to Emma, many come in without basic things they will need to function, such as medical insurance, TANF, childcare, food stamps or a primary care doctor. One thing that is often missing is a birth certificate. She says many lose them or have them stolen while living on the street or in other hazardous conditions.
She helps them complete all the necessary forms to access these needs and works closely with the Oregon Health Authority and the Alberta branch of the self-efficiency office where clients can sign up for Food Stamps, TANF, etc. And because LifeWorks NW’s Project Network is well known and because she’s been doing this work for so long, Emma can speed up processes that might take much longer under different circumstances.
“Normally, if you weren’t in treatment it could take 45 days or longer to get your <Food Stamps> application processed,” she says. “But since they are familiar with Project Network, they normally get the applications processed in one or two days, which is very, very good.”
She also assists them in getting health insurance through the Oregon Health Plan, and her resources at the Oregon Health Authority can often get that approved the same day.
“I’ve been doing this since 2004, so I have a lot of outside resources,” she says.
If clients come in with nothing, Project Network staff keeps food, clothing and hygiene packets on hand to help them get started. Since some are coming from jail or off the streets, they are often hungry, so Emma keeps snack packs with her at the assessments to make sure they can eat immediately. Normally Project Network accepts donations for an onsite clothes closet, but COVID-19 made it difficult to accept donations. The staff does its best to provide clothes through the clothes closet, but if the needs can’t be met, they often search their own closets to meet needs.
According to Emma, it’s not possible to focus on recovery if you are without food, clothing or hygiene, so this initial effort is critical. But it isn’t all Emma does. She works with her assigned clients throughout their stay at Project Network–everything from helping them understand confusing paperwork to taking them grocery shopping to accompanying them to doctor or dentist appointments. She helps them apply for housing when they near graduation and coordinates calls or visits with their children.
“I recently had to set up zoom calls for a client whose three children were <thousands of miles away> and all in different locations,” she says.
Some of the clients struggle with basic life skills. For example, a client may have no experience managing a household, so she’ll demonstrate how to clean their Project Network apartment.
Group sessions, which just started back in person, are another important part of Emma’s role, and she’ll pick a different recovery topic each time. The participants will check in on how they are feeling and how many days they’ve been clean, then describe their feelings about the topic at hand.
“I help them understand if they put as much energy into staying clean as they did in using, they’ll be successful,” she says. “I give them hope. Some days are very hard, but if you look at where you came from and where you are now, it can really help.”
One of the things Emma likes best about her job is the collaborative spirit and teamwork. She says her entire team is willing to pitch in whenever there is a need, whether or not a client is assigned to them.
“I like my job and I love my coworkers,” she says. “They are always there for you.”