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Peer to Peer: Meeting Those in Need Where They Are

Ramon Cruz

After more than three decades of substance use, Ramon Cruz decided to seek recovery and now is working with DBHIDS’ Certified Peer Specialist program, helping others access support for recovery.

By Monica Lewis-Wilborn

Ramon Cruz was tired.

He was tired of being in and out of trouble with the law. He was tired of disappointing his family. He was tired of letting his life spin out of control.

It was in that time of despair, when he was at his weakest point, that Ramon found the strength to take charge of his life and find a way to recovery after more than 30 years of substance use and numerous incarcerations. That was two years ago and today, Ramon, 53, is not just off of drugs, but he’s a part of our Certified Peer Specialist program with Community Behavioral Health (CBH), the managed care arm of the Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services (DBHIDS) that serves as a voice for and resource to those impacted by behavioral health issues. Each day, Ramon uses his story to help others who find themselves on the same path to nowhere he traveled for so long.

“I realized that all of the liabilities of my past are assets today,” said Ramon, who graduated from our Certified Peer Specialist program last June and has been a peer specialist since August. Through this program, Ramon and others who have self-identified as a person with a serious behavioral health disorder (mental illness or co-occurring disorder) with lived experiences, go through a series of trainings to receive certification to support others in their recovery process. It’s been proven to be an effective program, allowing people dealing with certain challenges to meet and connect with others who can relate to what they are dealing with. There’s mutual trust and respect, which is huge in establishing and sustaining a recovery process, Ramon said.

“We’re really helping people in recovery learn and strengthen the life skills that will be crucial to them getting themselves together,” said Ramon, who had several stints in jail and was homeless for a period before he decided to seek recovery. Now, he has a job with benefits and enjoys sharing his struggles with the hope that others will not fall as far as he did.

“That’s what helped me. One day, I just said to myself that I gotta change my way of thinking because the way I’ve been thinking is what got me here,” said Ramon, who finds great joy in being a certified peer specialist and meeting with others who have similar experiences. “Maybe we’re not saving everybody’s life, but we’re saving some lives. Each day, we see that there’s hope.”

To apply for the Certified Peer Specialist program, applicants must have the following:

  • High school diploma or GED
  • Demonstrated proficiency in reading and writing
  • Within the last three years has 12 months (not necessarily consecutive) full or part-time paid or volunteer work experience; one year of college or other educational experience (within the last three years) can be substituted for the work experience
  • Ability to establish trusting relationships with their peers
  • Documented proof of serious behavioral health disorder
  • Commitment to recovery, choice, and empowerment

Applications for the next round of Certified Peer Specialists training are being accepted through April 21. For additional information on the program or to learn how to apply, email DBHIDS.PeerCulture@phila.gov.