Solid commitments to intergenerational collaboration build a career pipeline to attract young people of color that serves as a model for other organizations.
Maria Nunez describes herself as defiant when she attended New Horizons in Pasco in Washington state. School counselor Carolyn Cox’s Mindset Reset room is where any student could really blow off steam. Carolyn makes it clear that one’s Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) score does not define anyone. Maria was determined not to follow the traditional path of working in the fields or the factory. Carolyn’s SPARK program at this alternative school introduced this rebellious student to the hope of a career in behavioral health.
While working 2 jobs, being pregnant, and going to school, Maria got her GED at 19 shortly after having her daughter. She completed the training and state exam to become a Certified Peer Counselor (CPC) which is a Medicaid reimbursable service. Soon she was gainfully employed and then advanced to a Youth and Parent Certified Peer Counselor Trainer. The next rung on her career ladder was to join the SPARK Development Team as the Contract Manager where she explains the range of responsibilities.
Maria shatters stereotypes. Her doctor could not believe that “I had this job with my bald head and tattoos.” At age 21, she just got promoted to fill a new position as SPARK Project Director for the Washington Statewide Youth Leadership Network.
Maria continues to defy expectations. She is the first Latina youth appointed to the Governor’s Behavioral Health Advisory Council. More agencies, including service providers, recognize the need to infuse young people with lived experience right smack in their leadership circle.
Organizational Structures Mandate Youth Involvement
A legal settlement and subsequent legislation mandated substantive youth involvement. A lawsuit required the state of Washington to build a mental health system for Medicaid-eligible children and youth age 20 or younger with complex emotional, behavioral, and social issues. Included in the agreement is licensed behavioral health agencies pay CPCs for their mental health and substance abuse peer counseling with Medicaid funds.
In addition to SPARK’s partnership with the Washington Health Care Authority to provide services along with workforce development, many CPCs participate in other policy making structures that explicitly rely on input from youth and young adults.
- Maria and others from SPARK are involved in Family Youth System Partner Round Tables (FYSPRT) that meet monthly to suggest improvements for treatment and services at the local and regional levels.
- Recent legislation added seats for two youth/young adults with lived experience to serve on a new subgroup, Youth and Young Adult Continuum of Care (YYACC), to prioritize issues identified by FYSPRT.
- Another example of intentional youth infusion is the WA Behavioral Health Advisory Council that requires 51 percent community members, which include young people, who identify gaps and priorities in the federal SAMSHA block grant.
Back when Maria was in high school, she never imagined these ambitious roles and responsibilities. SPARK provides a home with a solid foundation of intergenerational interdependence.
Creating a Collegial Culture
It is apparent that Carolyn Cox, co-founder of SPARK, has an infectious spirit and terrific sense of humor along with her own history that she knows peer support could have made an enormous difference.
Board member Ahney King, MS describes the “aura” that Carolyn creates because young people know “she really lets them be themselves, lets them feel, and lets them speak.” The attitude at SPARK seems to truly embrace new and untried approaches.
Carolyn regards Maria as “my right hand man” and Maria reciprocates, describing how they “bounce off” of each other. Ahney credits her continued learning to her interactions with young people:
The power of peer-to-peer influence is undeniable and there are plenty of reasons why adult-run organizations lose out if they are not partnering with young people as colleagues.
- RACIAL DIVERSITY. In the field of behavioral health–which is dominated by older white women–the outreach strategies by Maria and her peers result in attracting many people of color including young men to pursue CPC trainings, paid apprenticeships and higher education.
- REALITY CHECK. Another obvious reason for enlisting people who are similar in age to those receiving services is to get informed, uncensored input essential for effective monitoring and evaluation.
- SYSTEMS CHANGE. A team of SPARK Certified Peer Counselors now are co-designing a new program to reach current and formerly incarcerated juveniles that will differentiate from services for adults exiting the corrections system.
This model program demonstrates that it just makes sense for professionals to work with other trailblazers like Maria Nunez. As Carolyn Cox sums up her core philosophy with typical ebullience,
Could your organization learn from SPARK to build a career pipeline to remedy the acute shortages not only in behavioral health but other sectors?
Could your organization change its culture and structure to hire more young people who grow into leadership positions?
Contact us about our online workshops that are designed to help you and your team achieve these objectives and more!