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    It is our people and culture that make what we do special. It is the spirit of a peer community that makes us different from and compliment what else is out there Sarah Vaile, Founder and Director of Recovery Cymru

Peer Support at a Distance: Lessons and Opportunities from the Covid Lockdown

In this guest blog, Sarah Vaile, Founder and Director of Recovery Cymru, writes about how her organisation's services have adapted to Covid-19 and the opportunities and challenges this presents.

Who are we?

Recovery Cymru (RC) is peer-led recovery community organisation. It evolved from a single support group for people overcoming substance misuse issues ten years ago. We run groups, 1:1 coaching, telephone recovery support, social activities, volunteering and crisis support. We are, at heart, a community where people feel accepted, supported, noticed and can thrive.

Our open access recovery centres (one in Cardiff and one in Barry), open 365 days per year, are usually the hub of our activity. We were understandably sad and apprehensive when we had to close them on 17th March because of Covid-19.

However, what happened next has been so encouraging and testament to the strength and adaptability of our community, people and model. We have always believed our people are our greatest asset and our ‘flat hierarchy’ means our people are well versed in being part of the solution to the problems they face. They are used to being asked, speaking up, being heard – and then expected to implement!

Without knowing it, we were ‘set up’ and ready to adapt our model to the current times, with people who felt invested in, motivated and had a strong sense of community spirit. 

Distance Delivery: Opportunities and Challenges

I often what being part of RC means to them and what are the best bits. Expecting to hear how amazing our centres, groups, programmes, activities are (!), without fail the things that people talk about first are: feeling part of the RC family, connection, finding hope, knowing change is possible and that they won’t be judged. While our centres, groups, programmes, activities are amazing (!) and get great feedback, it is our people and culture that make what we do special. It is the spirit of a peer community that makes us different from and compliment what else is out there.

So, how do we maintain that at a distance? Connection, connection, connection.

Groups, weekly check ins, asking questions that show we’ve listened and are interested; an increased social media presence, birthday cards, texts, postcards, a kind word, encouragement. It’s not perfect and it’s not rocket science but it’s genuine and it works.

From 18th March 2020, we continued 7 days a week open access via distance delivery, including evenings and weekends. Within days we were running text, email, phone and video 1:1 support, including less formal and more formal peer support. We are now about to start our tenth weekly Zoom peer support group, meaning we have a group running 7 days per week.

We have developed new and adapted existing staff and volunteer training, guidance and wellbeing activities for distance delivery. Increased support is critical at this time, as well as the need for fun, team connection and maintaining motivation. Volunteering is at the heart of our model. We are so pleased that with some encouragement, technology and training our volunteers are involved in running our groups and telephone support.

While we are proud to be delivering to around 100+ people per week, we are aware there are people we are not reaching. Those who miss our face to face and social interaction, as well as those who are not confident or equipped with technology. We continue to reach out via text and postcards, as well as sending our usual birthday cards – a personal touch which shows people we care.

First Steps to Recovery – a surprising and exciting achievement!

Without wanting to sound too corny, I think the premise of peer support is about turning something negative (addiction) into a positive (helping yourself and others). We’ve also certainly learned this as a community during Covid. There have been positives and opportunities as well as the strain and uncertainty.

A particularly exciting development has been our ‘First Steps’ project

This project has been developed and led by people with lived experience in Recovery Cymru (staff, volunteers and members) who advocated for us to offer peer support to people at a much earlier stage of their journey - ‘pre-recovery’ so-to-speak.

This work started as ‘outreach’ work, with our peers and volunteers (who are highly trained and supported), also undertaking the generic NHS volunteers training to enable them to deliver in the hospital, meeting people on the wards following admission. The next step was to develop our work with A&E and to strongly promote staff with lived experience and volunteer-led peer telephone recovery support. This latter aim was catapulted by Covid and our telephone recovery support for this group is well and truly off the ground. We are taking referrals from the substance misuse liaison team in University Hospital Wales and A&E, as well as the Community Addictions Unit. Expecting this work to remain ‘small’, with it being challenging to engage this group and at a distance, we have been delighted by how well it has developed. We now have two staff and two volunteers working on this with us.

This has been a great example of genuine, respectful and enthusiastic partnership with all staff and volunteers involved valued for their contribution. This enthusiasm and practical joint working are directly translating to the support we are able to offer the people who are referred.

We are greatly encouraged by the progress we have made but also recognise we have work to do, as we test and develop the right approach. We are further developing our partnerships to make this happen.

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The Future

What does the future hold for us? Part of the adventure in a peer-led organisation is that we don’t always know!

Our 10-year independent impact assessment will be published in Autumn. Initial findings have told us how much our members are valuing our distance support and would like this to continue when we are able to reopen our centres. Our new strategy will be published later this year and will incorporate the ideas of our members, our new work, as well as getting back to our centres when we can.

Covid has reminded us that it is not what we do but who we are that our members are drawn to - staying connected and sharing support, whether that is in the centres, in a park or as floating heads on a screen. The people are what makes us who we are.

I am so proud as a small charity we have proved to be so agile, so quickly. This is testament to our model, members, volunteers and staff. I’d like to extend my gratitude to our team who have showed impressive resilience and adaptability from day one of lockdown.

You can find out more about Recovery Cymru here:

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© Cymorth Cymru 2021
Company Registration No: 5093332
Charity No: 1116774