Gwen with her son Jordan

Peer support program offers in-home behavioral help for kids and their families

When Gwen Leach was growing up, her mom always told her it takes a village to raise a child. Now, as a parent herself, she said she knows why.

“As a kid I was like, ‘Mom, why do you keep saying that?’ But now, I totally understand,” Leach said. “Even when there’s a mom and dad in the home, there could still be issues where you just need some help.”

As a mother of four girls and three boys ranging from 12 to 26 years old, Leach raised a full house. But when her youngest son Jordan started having angry and occasionally violent outbursts, she said she felt alone and without a support system.

“[Jordan] had a lot of anger issues,” she said. “If I said the wrong thing, Jordan would snap. His impulse control was null and void. He did not process and think about his actions prior to doing them at all. That was everything from being at home, at school, out in the community, anywhere. When Jordan went to switch, it’s everybody watch out.”

Connected to a peer support program

After one of Jordan’s outbursts landed him in juvenile court, Leach connected with Child & Adolescent Behavioral Health, a Stark County agency that offers mental health treatment and services to children, adolescents and their families.

“When I went for my assessment, they said Jordan would be a good candidate for the peer support program, and that they had somebody that they thought would be a good fit for him.”

The Child & Adolescent Behavioral Health Peer Support Program connects a child and their family with a peer support specialist, someone who has experienced difficulties as an adolescent and overcame their struggles to become an effective role model and support system for a youth experiencing similar struggles.

For Jordan that role model is Jonny Rice.

“A lot of people confuse peer support specialists with peer mentorship, but actually, we’re similar to a case manager in term of our services provided,” said Rice, a peer support specialist for Child & Adolescent Behavioral Health. “The way we get our certification is based on lived experience. For me personally, I’m certified in mental behavioral health because I have lived experience with it … I have ADHD, PTSD and some depression and anxiety issues. I’ve had to work during my life to learn how to cope with those things, and those skills translate well into other issues.”

Through the program, Rice meets with Jordan and his family weekly for an in-home session. The sessions are informal and an opportunity for them to talk openly, play games and work on coping skills for Jordan’s anger and impulse control.

Rice said the informality of the sessions creates a safe and comfortable environment, where he’s not bound by traditional office hours.

“The big thing is just having something they can relate to and having someone that they feel safe with,” he said. “We don’t have the same constraints on us as other providers. With peer support specialists, if they need us during a crisis three days in a row and we’re available, we go out. It’s certainly not that we care more than other providers, but we’re there more, just because we’re able to be. It works really well in a clinical chain to help hold things together.”

A support system for the whole family

Now, about a year into the program, Leach said Rice has become part of the family, and she sees the positive impact on Jordan’s behavior.

“This has been the best change for our family in a long time,” she said. “I think that’s why Jordan likes it so much, because it doesn’t feel like therapy. Maybe it’s not considered that, but it so is. When Jonny leaves, it feels like we’ve taken a deep breath.”

Rice said he’s extremely proud of Jordan and the progress he’s made, and he credits Leach for recognizing when to reach out.

“A lot of times parents don’t want to call when their child is in crisis,” he said. “Sometimes it’s because they’re worried about the trouble or they’re just unconcerned. But it’s never been that way with Gwen. If there’s an issue, she calls me to come and help. She’s very open to whatever needs to happen for de-escalation in a healthy manner.”

Leach said having the consistent support has given her peace of mind.

“I used to go to work and worry instead of being able to focus on my job,” said Leach. “Now, I can go to work and know that even if Jordan messes up, I have a support system in place and somewhere I can get help. I don’t feel like I’m alone anymore. I don’t feel like it’s just me against the world, and I don’t know how to help my son. Of course, we’re going to hit some bumps and some snags, and we have, but at least I know I have that support. That is the most helpful for all of us.”

Leach said she hopes other parents will seek help and find their village when they need it.

“Reaching out for help isn’t a sign of weakness,” she said. “I feel totally and completely blessed to have found Child & Adolescent Behavioral Health, and for them to offer this program has helped my family tremendously. I would recommend it a thousand times over.”

UNITED we see what’s possible

The Child & Adolescent Behavioral Health Peer Support Program is funded in-part through United Way of Greater Stark County. Help more families like Gwen and Jordan find the support system and mental health services they need by donating to our annual campaign. Make a gift today.