‘As Long As They Need Us’
“We’re trying to help people save their lives,” says Stephanie Cameron, founder and executive director of Restored Connections Peer Center, a new nonprofit that helps clients through peer mentorship and ways to recover from substance abuse. “We work with anybody who shows up, and then as long as they need us.”
To celebrate its integration into the Eugene community, Restored Connections Peer Center hosts its grand opening Jan. 2, featuring a ribbon-cutting ceremony, refreshments and an introduction to their services. The center is fully funded by Measure 110, also known as the “Drug Decriminalization and Addiction Treatment Initiative.” The measure funded new addiction recovery centers and community “Access to Care” grants, financed with cannabis revenues.
For those who have suffered from substance use disorder, “stigma, shame and guilt are a huge part,” Cameron says. The center provides peer mentors who can empathize with the struggles of the mentees through their shared experience. “The one common denominator is that we all identify as suffering from substance abuse disorder and recovering from that disorder,” she says.
Hunter Nelms, administrative peer supervisor at Restored Connections, speaks to the importance of culturally specific peer mentors. “Right now, we have a veteran on staff, so if a veteran wants to work with a veteran we have that,” he says. “We have an LGBTQ representative that’s going to work with us.”
Nelms makes it clear that these peer mentors can work with anyone. “But if you want someone who identifies with your culture, we want to be able to meet that need,” he says.
According to Cameron, the value of a peer-run center cannot be overstated. “When you have somebody who has lived experience, who has suffered from this disease, who can say, ‘It’s OK, I understand, I too have walked this journey and I want to help you,’” she says, “it is a power unlike any other.”
The center provides individuals with much needed support, Cameron explains. “It’s very different when a child welfare worker tells you you’re not a good parent, and if you don’t do what she says, you’ll never get your kids back,” she says. “It’s very different when a probation officer tells you that everything you’ve been doing is wrong, and you better act right or you’re going back to jail.”
Cameron affirms the positive impact that peer mentorship can have for an individual who’s suffering. “When you have somebody who says ‘I remember what it was like when I was told that,’” she says. Or “‘I remember how scary it was to not be able to stop using’ — it lowers the shame.”
Cameron had identified a gap within Eugene social services that led her to create the peer center. “Right now, Eugene’s primary peer services are contracted or agency embedded peer services,” she says, meaning that if you go to one of those peer treatment facilities, you’re assigned a peer mentor, but “once you graduate from that facility, you lose your peer mentor,” she says.
This sudden lack of support is an obstacle to recovery, Cameron says. “What happens when you’re in recovery is you’re still trying to live life,” she says. “You’re still going into weddings where they’re serving alcohol, you’re still dealing with the trauma that caused you to start using, you’re still reuniting with your children from child welfare.” The center provides people with community, support and resources long after they leave a treatment facility.
“Our services are peer mentorship, supported employment, resources to housing, and connecting people with medical services,” Cameron says. Restored Connections provides transportation, meetings, alternative recovery programs and inpatient, outpatient and detox treatments.
Cameron says she believes in community partnership. “One agency or service can’t do it all,” she says. The center often partners with complementary organizations to facilitate access to resources. Nelms says, “We partner with Laurel Hill and Emergence who have mental health providers on staff.” As far as housing goes, he says that Restored Connections can refer people to places such as Oxford House and Housing Our Veterans.
By using the supported employment service, peers can access resume assistance, practice interviews, connections to second chance employers, documentation assistance and help applying online. “We’re here to support them,” Nelms says. “A job interview can be a scary thing when you’ve spent the last 10 years houseless.”
Nelms says he understands the importance of a supported employment service because he experienced the benefits himself. “When I went to get a job at 38 years old, I had never had one,” he says, “but I had someone that went with me to the interview, helped me get boots for the job that I got cutting steel.”
Cameron explains that what makes Restored Connections unique is that it offers an independent peer service. “You don’t have to be working with somebody, you don’t have to be engaged in treatment,” she says. The center helps people at any stage of recovery or who aren’t in recovery at all.
She uses the example of someone coming to the center who is actively using fentanyl and is seeking treatment. The peer mentors would then help the person access the treatment facility or service that best fits their needs. “We will work with their service providers to provide a holistic approach,” she says. “Maybe they get out of treatment — we’re still engaged with them.”
Next, Cameron explains, the center would get them into recovery housing in order to feel more secure in their journey. At this stage, they might visit the center once a month. “We will work with them until they decide that formal services can end, and then they can access the drop-in center and be a part of this recovery community for the rest of their life,” she says.
Nelms says he aims “to help individuals find out what their recovery looks like.”
“We work with the houseless population and people who are actively using,” Cameron says. “We’re also working with people who have 15 years of recovery who are secure and maybe want to do a career change or give back to their community.”
The goal is to create an environment of trust and support, without any judgment, Cameron explains. Restored Connections serves as a safe place people can go whenever they feel their recovery might be at risk.
“We are here for the individual, regardless of what else is going on in their lives,” she says.