Like a stone dropped in a pond creating ripples that move outward, one life changed through Denver Rescue Mission has the power to transform many more. The Peer Leader Program at Harvest Farm embraces this ripple effect and allows it to happen.
The program launched in September of 2019 and invites graduates of the Farm’s New Life Program (NLP), a faith-based rehabilitation for men, to come back and live on the Farm and engage with participants through one-on-one mentorship and group activities.
By spending time with participants and building relationships with them, the Peer Support Specialists (Peer Leaders) are able to encourage and motivate them by listening, guiding and sharing their own experiences in recovery—from the suffering to the victory.
The Peer Leaders help facilitate Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) meetings, participate in Bible studies, plan activities and movie nights, and simply catch up with participants over meals and workout sessions. “It’s the stuff that got them clean and sober too,” said Steve Pietrafeso, peer leader supervisor at Harvest Farm. “They’re leading by example.”
NLP graduates are eligible to apply for Peer Leader positions if they have been living on their own, off the Farm, for a period of at least one year. “They can go out and live life clean and sober without the Farm holding them accountable,” Steve said “They were outside doing recovery, building a community, going to church—doing all that on their own. Now, they can come back and tell the guys, ‘during my lived experience, I struggled with this or be cautious of this.’”
The Peer Leaders are required to complete training through Colorado Mental Wellness Network, an organization specializing in mental health advocacy and Peer Support Specialist certification. The curriculum helps cultivate skills in social-emotional support, advocacy, communication, and coaching.
The current Peer Leaders at Harvest Farm, Graham, Taylor and Aaron, are in recovery from substance use disorders and have been sober for more than two years. They live in a home on the southwest corner of the Farm’s 100-acre property and have full-time jobs outside of the Farm. “It has definitely kept them accountable, which in turn helps their sobriety,” Steve said. “It has helped them put recovery first above everything and then teach that same message to our guys.”
One of the goals of the program is to help men stay on track and graduate. The Peer Leaders intentionally reach out to men who are in the initial phases of the NLP— within the first four months—a period of time that tends to be the most challenging for participants who are in recovery. The Peer Leaders also connect with new participants within the first 48 hours of their arrival to provide encouragement when they’re likely experiencing feelings of uncertainty.
The ultimate goal? Prepare more stones for the pond and keep the ripple effect going. Because every life changed at Harvest Farm has the power to transform so many more.
Meet Our Peer Leaders
“I was a farmer—a rancher. I was eight or nine when I started getting blackout drunk. Then, as I got into junior high, I tried pills. Once I got to high school, I was still drinking, smoking pot and chewing. I started doing coke. When I was 22 or 23, I had hernia surgery and the doctor put me on pain meds. That rekindled the fire for an opioid addiction. It just got to the point where I couldn’t quit. I had a couple of failed suicide attempts.
[The New Life Program] was my third rehab. I thought I was going to sit in a classroom and listen to somebody preach about all my poor choices. But when I got to Harvest Farm, it reminded me of home. I could feed the animals, clean their pens and water the fields. I could clear my mind. I just felt like I owed it to the Farm and the guys to help them get back on their feet and be an example.
[As a Peer Leader], my deal is going to AA meetings and sharing my experience, strength and hope with them. Another way I interact with them is in the weight room. We talk about lifting or talk about life or sobriety. I just remind them that their worst day sober is still going to be a thousand times better than any best high they’ve had. They’ve got to keep the faith that a better life, a healthy life, sober life, a new life, is possible.”
“When I was younger, I was always in trouble and getting kicked out of schools. Liquor is what really started a downward spiral in my life. I started drinking at 14. By the time I was 17, I was physically dependent on alcohol. When I was 18, I got locked up. I went through withdrawals in there. I got locked up again after spending time living under bridges.
That’s when God changed my life. While I was incarcerated, He changed my heart and my mind. December 5, 2017 at approximately 3:45 p.m. is when I last did drugs and drank. I went to Harvest Farm, and Jesus continued doing work in me. Hanging out with good people was revolutionary for me in my recovery. I loved that we had to go to church every Sunday.
Now, I’m a youth leader volunteer at my church. I volunteer every Wednesday and have spoken at about 10 schools. [Being a Peer Leader] gives me a sense of purpose. I never had purpose. I used to live on top of roofs and under bridges. I used to live in this cardboard box. That was the lowest point in my life. There was really no reason to live. Now, it’s the complete opposite. I have a reason that I’m here. Quite often, guys come and talk to me. These one-onone relationships are really important, because they see that I made it out. I went through what I went through to help others. None of my struggle was in vain.”
“I had a pretty normal childhood. I’m from Estes Park. I struggled with [alcoholism] for about 17 years. I went through periods of sobriety. I was always going back and forth and fell off the wagon again. I can’t tell you exactly why—it just happens. I couldn’t take care of myself. I couldn’t pay for anything.
My grandmother told my mom about [Harvest Farm]. I was terrified. I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t realize there were people out there who actually cared that much. It definitely renewed my faith a lot, which was something I had given up on. I’ve always been that guy throughout life that people come talk to, which is funny because I’m an introvert. I’m the older one of the three [Peer Leaders]. I’m 39, so you can see that a lot of the older participants are drawn toward me.
I usually have the most success just hanging out with them. We usually just barbeque and talk about life. I take a group to church every Sunday. I’m also doing a men’s small group. I’m continuing my career as an electrician. Someday, I want to be a full-time addiction counselor and try and help people. I feel like it might be kind of a calling.”
Your gifts are making a profound difference in the lives of our New Life Program graduates, who in turn transform the people and communities around them. Donate today to continue fostering this ripple effect,
The Impact of the Peer Leader Program
Numbers reflect September 1, 2019 to June 20, 2020.
Number of times Peer Leaders connected with participants: 2,015
Average number of hours per week that a Peer Leader spends with participants: 12.5
Increase in retention from participants’ first 30 to 60 days in the program, compared to the previous year before the Peer Leader Program was in effect: 6%
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