Peer Recovery Coaching Q+A with Jesse Heffernan

We are excited to share our interview with Jesse Heffernan, a recovery coach, consultant and founder of Helios Recovery Services. Jesse is a valued advocate and champion for the recovery community. As someone with vast experience in the field, we were eager to talk to him about the evolution of peer services in the recovery and community spaces.

And, Jesse just celebrated 18 years in long-term recovery! Please join us in congratulating him on his amazing achievement!

Q: Tell us a little about yourself.

A: My name is Jesse Heffernan and I am a person who is in long-term substance use and mental health recovery since January 21st, 2001. I live in Appleton, Wisconsin with my wife and four children. I currently co-operate a small independent recovery support services organization called Helios Recovery Services. We focus on training and consultation within substance use recovery and foster care systems.

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My early recovery service consisted of helping coordinate Fox Valley, Wisconsin recovery support activities and statewide conventions. I also helped bring recovery meetings into jails and created and co-facilitated the first youth specific recovery support groups in northeast Wisconsin.

I attended the Fox Valley Technical School to pursue a career in graphic design and marketing, which opened the doors into new areas of service opportunities with AmeriCorps. During 2006 and 2007 I worked as an AmeriCorps volunteer for the Wisconsin Association of Homeless and Runaway Youth Services. That role consisted of talking to youth about the dangers of running away and teaching them resources to assist in de-escalating crisis situations. We also conducted street-level direct services and outreach.

I also had the opportunity to serve as a Director for the Iris Place Peer Run Mental Health Respite and as the National Outreach & Empowerment Coordinator for Faces & Voices of Recovery.

Q: How did you get involved in the peer recovery coaching space?

A: I worked for a program started by Goodwill called Harmony Cafe between 2006 and 2015. Harmony Cafe was an incredible resource hub in northeast Wisconsin that bridged several gaps for people seeking resources. It not only provided a safe, cool place for coffee and food, but it also offered community programs to support LGBTQ services, live music and art shows. Harmony Cafe hosted up to 25 programs a week with local nonprofits. Being a person in recovery, I saw there was a gap in the recovery community compared to the vast number of resources that existed for the larger community.

So, I proposed a recovery case management program to Goodwill. They liked the idea and recommended I research it more. And, low and behold, I discovered the Connecticut Community for Addiction Recovery (CCAR) model for coaching. Goodwill paid for my travel and training costs so I could go to Connecticut to become a recovery coach trainer.

I held my first training in Appleton, Wisconsin in September of 2014. Since then I've trained a little over a hundred coaches in Wisconsin and Illinois. I consulted with the state on developing their certified peer specialist model. I believe that peer services are highly underutilized and need to be lifted up to a far more professional level to fill the gaps in our current systems.

Q: How have you seen peer coaching evolve into the recovery and community spaces?

A: I think there have been significant changes in community spaces regarding peer services. As we build this as a professional vocation for individuals to help support others, we have developed more tools for both supervision and professional development for our coaches. There are numerous webinars, trainings and ongoing development services being created specifically for the peer space, which really shows how important and vital the services are.

Being a Core Trainer of CCAR, I am excited they have expanded the number of training resources that they offer. New trainings on topics such as ethics, boundaries, professionalism, spirituality and even emergency department recovery coaching have been added to this evolving space. With those and more coming down the line, I think we are on the precipice of this really blowing up.

Recovery Community Organizations (RCOs) are definitely the best place for coaches to be employed or volunteer. I think it's vital that we maintain the fidelity of our lane when it comes to recovery coaches and peer services. It could be very easy for traditional medical therapeutic communities to co-opt or try to swallow the peer movement as we are becoming more recognized. It will be important for organizations and communities to have intentional representation that reflects the people they serve.

Unfortunately, people still get treated unfairly being a person with lived experience. There is added stigma when talking about the intersectionality of ethnicity, culture, gender, orientation, and economic status. The real evolution of the peer movement will recognize the discrepancies and prejudices in our systems and work to own and overcome them. I think the conversation will start to change when we come to the table and recognize our value. I've seen a quote that said, “Those who are closest to the problem are closest to the solution”, and I think that really resonates with what we're doing in the peer movement. I also think that you can't get yourself out of a situation using the same thinking that got you into it.

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Q: How do people typically access peer coaches in community settings?

A: It's been my experience that people seeking help typically scramble at first and either search for treatment on the internet or reach out to someone in their network for help. Unfortunately, accessing peers coaches and RCOs are not on the top of the list. I think we would have an entirely different situation if recovery coaches were at the top and were the first people to connect with individuals or family members seeking help. Coaches and peers can be a resource that fills so many gaps, especially when it comes to harm reduction and access to services. It’s great because coaches who work with independent RCOs aren’t tied to any particular treatment hospital or pharmaceutical company.

Q: What are your thoughts on utilizing coaches in-person vs. virtual settings?

A: I think there is value in both. Some folks require more one-on-one personal coaching and that’s not always an option for some. I think there is some generational discrepancy as well. Some people are more comfortable with online virtual support settings because it allows them the ability to remain anonymous. Any type of system that is run independently, vetted and has good supervision for their coaches can be very beneficial.

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Q: What is an example of peer coaching done well in a community setting?

A: It is really hard to cite just one example. I think that there are several systems across the country that model great peer coaching services. I have had the privilege to visit and connect with several communities across the country and learn how they adapted and overcame obstacles to meet people’s needs. There are places where the coaching services are funded by the state or county and others that receive private or grant funding to serve specific needs.

Q: How are coaches used in a Recovery-Oriented System of Care?

A: Once a community develops the groundwork for a Recovery-Oriented System of Care (ROSC), recovery support services are a natural progression. Integrating coaches into this person-center framework can help behavioral health systems and community partners in multiple ways. It not only brings lived experience to the table, but it also provides space for input and leadership from the recovery community. One of the powerful things I learned about Recovery-Oriented Systems of Care was from Lonnetta Albright, the Director of the Great Lakes ATTC. She taught me that if we want to see real change, we need to treat individuals and communities as long-term processes of change.

I think communities that have experienced success are the ones that recognize the intersectionality of substance use with ethnicity, race, culture, gender, orientation, class and trauma factors. It's a lot to unpack, but at the end of the day, people in recovery have so much to offer, so much potential and so much love to give when they are lifted up. They offer unparalleled loyalty and dedication. Any community considering the ROSC framework would benefit from making sure various backgrounds and recovery periods are represented from the beginning.