A Rising Voice in the Peer Support Movement–Jammie Gardner

July 28, 2020

Leadership Stories from Coauthor of “Youth Engagement and Empowerment Strategies” Book Chapter

Jammie Gardner, Chief Operations, Youth Era

Do you know those people who are extraordinary listeners? They never cease to surprise you with the detail they remember. Even if you don’t know them very well, they create such a sense of safety and non-judgment that you might surprise yourself with how much you open up to them. You can just sense that they care and are listening—two great qualities in friends and leaders that build trust and relationships.

I know such a person. In addition to being a great listener, thoughtful leader and Chief Operations Officer of Youth Era since 2009, Jammie Gardner recently coauthored a chapter “Youth Engagement and Empowerment Strategies” in the book “Transforming Residential Interventions: Practical Strategies and Future Directions.”

One of Jammie’s biggest strengths as a leader is her ability to listen to staff, who are primarily Youth Peer Support Specialists (YPSSs). The care, attention, and non-judgemental listening she gives her staff builds trust and allows them to open up. Because they can be honest and problem solve together, she’s able to understand YPSSs’ unique needs, strengths, and challenges. She’s taken her expertise and developed a model that other organizations can follow to recruit, hire, and support YPSS staff successfully. 

When you have YPSS, who are highly trained young people with lived experience, supporting youth through their challenges—you start to see some incredible results. Some youth will talk to YPSSs about things they’ve never told a parent, therapist, or friend. Research shows that youth report increased self-esteem and confidence, increased sense that treatment is responsive and inclusive of needs, decreased psychotic symptoms, reduced hospital admission rates and decreased substance use and depression with peer support, among other benefits.

If you’re looking to bring YPSSs on board, Jammie and her coauthors, Lacy Kendrick Burk and Raquel Montes, have prepared a plan to guide you. The chapter first outlines the benefits of youth engagement and YPSSs. Organizations will have to make a cultural shift to successfully host YPSSs, and the chapter details the necessary changes. They then provide you with a plan of how to effectively recruit, interview, train, and supervise YPSSs, as well as how to engage youth and families before, during, and after treatment.

There are decades of knowledge and experience in the chapter, so there’s much wisdom shared. But we can also learn a lot by looking at Jammie’s leadership and the staff she’s empowered. Perhaps more important than the workforce of over 40 staff she and Youth Era have developed or the chapter she’s coauthored, are the individual connections she has with staff and how she’s helped them feel empowered in their toughest moments. 

Anyone who has worked in with youth in the mental health field has dealt with their share of challenging situations, and Goose McCabe is no different. She has worked at Youth Era as a YPSS at Medford Drop for over a year and supports youth who deal with a variety of challenges. Some of them might be experiencing suicidal ideation, others are recovering from drug addiction, and some might be going through the foster care system. Working in highly stressful situations and with high-risk youth is not uncommon for Goose, but, as she will tell you, sometimes it affects you more than others. 

About six months ago, Goose was supporting a youth who was at high risk for suicide. She knew that the youth had access to a variety of community resources, but for some reason, they refused to use them. The youth only went to Goose for support. The pressure of being the youth’s sole support and their suicidal ideations were triggering for Goose.

“I felt like if I wasn’t there for the youth, we would lose them,” Goose said. 

Soon she was spending the majority of her time supporting the youth. She was taking calls late at night, checking in on the youth at the motel the youth stayed at. Goose felt like she wasn’t able to support the other youth on her caseload fully, but she was scared that she might lose the youth if she didn’t go above and beyond. The pressure was getting to be too much. So, she reached out to someone she knew who she could trust—Jammie. 

Jammie had been Goose’s supervisor when Goose first started at Youth Era and remained a mentor for her. Goose was impressed with not only Jammie’s knowledge but her ability to be present, listen, and support her by solving problems together. Goose knew she could talk to Jammie without being judged.

“You could tell her anything, and she would respond with love and compassion,” she said.

Goose had talked to Jammie before about the youth, and Goose could tell she had been listening.

“I could bring up ‘the motel,’ and she would instantly know what I meant,” she explained. 

Goose opened up to Jammie about the situation, and instead of critiquing her, Jammie empathized. She told Goose, “every person who had worked in mental health has learned from someone.” Goose hadn’t made a mistake; she was learning. She also told Goose something that stuck with her—the difference between can’t and won’t.

Goose explained, “There’s a difference between someone who can’t access services and someone who won’t.” The youth was able to access different services and needed to learn that they could survive crises without Goose.

“Even though the idea made me uncomfortable, I knew Jammie was right,” Goose said. “I knew I could trust her.”

Why was Goose able to trust Jammie as a leader so implicitly? It goes back to listening. Jammie and Goose have a high level of trust and respect for each other. Her first impression of Jammie was that she listened a lot and was very present.

“She has the type of leadership where she’s open to hearing everyone’s input,” said Goose, “She’s very aware that best ideas come from more than one person.” 

Jammie would routinely meet with Goose and her coworker, Mike Caruso, in the staff room of the Medford Drop, and they would problem-solve together. Jammie recognized that Goose and Mike knew the youth the best and trusted their judgment. Goose, in turn, trusted Jammie’s judgment, not only because she was knowledgeable about mental health but because she demonstrates that she listens and understands the situation. She knows Jammie not only cares about doing the best thing for the youth but also her staff.

“You know that she is driven by heart—she’s so passionate,” Goose said.

All those hours of problem-solving with YPSSs, listening to their concerns, and being a shoulder for them to lean on has built strong, trusting relationships with her staff and given Jammie a wealth of insight on how to best support the YPSS workforce. The knowledge conveyed in the book chapter comes from over a decade of conversations with staff. It comes from being available to take their phone calls when crises pop up, being present while listening to them, empathizing and problem-solving with them and empowering them to learn and grow.

The chapter offers a guide to move the mental health community forward with a workforce of YPSSs that empower youth voice. Jammie’s knowledge comes from, in part, the value she puts on listening to and collaborating with her staff. Like Goose said about Jammie’s leadership style, “she’s very aware that best ideas come from more than one person.” The lessons in the chapter and listening to your staff are good ideas and examples of good leadership too.

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