The Westchester County Departments of Correction (WCDOC) held a ceremony at its Valhalla campus to formally recognize ten students who completed the first stage of the newly developed “Lives Forward” program. This innovative program was launched through a collaborative effort between the Westchester County Jail and Department of Community Mental Health (DCMH).

Department of Correction First Deputy Commissioner Nory Padilla opened the ceremony and said: “Lives Forward brings together two separate community training providers, and for the first time, consecutively trains the two certifications to one group of students – individuals living with addiction, mental health and criminal justice backgrounds, while they reside in the Westchester County Jail.”

The certifications are overseen through two state agencies, the NYS Office of Mental Health (OMH) certifying “Peer Specialists,” and the Office of Addiction Services and Supports (OASAS) certifying “Certified Recovery Peer Advocates (CRPAs).” In partnership with Westchester County, the OMH certification training was provided by the Mental Health Empowerment Project (MHEP), based in Mount Vernon, and the OASAS certification training was provided by the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence/Westchester, Inc. (NCADD), based in White Plains. Funding for the Program comes from Westchester County’s opioid lawsuit settlement funds.

The first program cohort, four women and six men, successfully completed six weeks of intensive academic training for this dual certification program, with each receiving certificates of completion for the Mental Health Peer Specialist and the Recovery Peer Advocates training courses. As part of their next steps, the students will connect with the Mental Health Empowerment Project and the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence/Westchester Inc., and receive tutoring and other supports to prepare for the State certification examination. Working with DCMH, the community providers will further work to ensure the dually-academic trained peers, upon return to the community, are connected with potential employers, anticipating expeditious employment as para-professionals.

Westchester County Executive George Latimer said: “I believe that this new model program will be a huge success, and we will soon see it being replicated in other parts of our state and country. Along with helping incarcerated individuals get on a better life path, this unique program also helps fill a shortage of much needed trained para-professionals for mental health and addiction treatment. I commend the group of students for completing the first stage of this dual-certificate program, and look forward to seeing them become certified behavioral health peers. I’m also pleased to see such meaningful collaboration between County, State and local agencies; it’s a compliment to their commitment to engineering positive change and to helping others.”

At the ceremony the students received certificates of achievement from Latimer, and many accolades from others in attendance.

Commissioner of Correction Joseph Spano said: “A special thanks to our students for volunteering to participate in this groundbreaking initiative and for the tremendous effort you put forward to complete the first stage of training. Both actions highlight your desire to transform your lives, and to support others in need. Also, the collaboration and partnerships associated with this program deserves special recognition. It’s these types of partnerships that greatly assist us in offering ‘Best in Class’ rehabilitation programs and services to the men and women in our care, and upon return to their community.”

Commissioner of DCMH Michael Orth said: “It is a special day to see the first graduating class from the Lives Forward program, and I look forward to many more graduates in the future. The impact that this program will have in developing well-qualified peers who will help people navigate the array of service provider and treatment modalities is extraordinary.  I thank all of our partners who joined us in this endeavor, but most of all I congratulate those who took on the challenging coursework to make a difference for themselves and others in our community.”

Deputy Commissioner of Community Mental Health Joseph Glazer said: “Today we celebrate those individuals who have completed the first session of Lives Forward; a program that is likely a first of its kind in the nation. The coursework is not easy, nor is the personal and emotional reckoning that is required to become a peer. But these individuals are trailblazers. While they themselves will make the world a better place for those in recovery, they are simultaneously making the path that many others will follow.”

Keynote Speaker Angela DeRossi talked about her experience as a formally incarcerated individual at WCDOC, and the work she did to turn her life around. Through her efforts, Angela has become an invaluable part of Family Services of Westchester Restorative Justice Department and important member of their Mobile Crisis Response Team (MCRT) and EMERGE program. During her period of incarceration, Angela graduated from the Emerge eight week program, which prepares participants to become responsible parents and financially independent. She now serves as a facilitator at WCDOC.  In addition, as a peer counselor on the MCRT, she has utilized her experience to assist clients in crisis and helped them navigate the Department of Social Service system and other community services.  Also, as a New York State certified peer specialist and counselor, she uses her experiences and knowledge to engage with clients around their struggles, whether they be addiction, homelessness, domestic violence, incarceration, or mental health.

Lives Forward Student Idris Sutton said: “The training was very encouraging and inspirational. It really opened my eyes to recognize mental health issues when I’m faced with them. It also gave me the ability and understanding to address those type of challenges without being judgmental. Great Class! The instructor was amazing. Thanks so much for this opportunity.”

Lives Forward Student Constance Koeper said: “I believe taking the first step to become a certified peer specialist and taking these classes is like spinning hay into gold.  I can now advocate for changes I always want in the mental health system or help save lives from addiction or much worse while being paid.”

The Westchester County Department of Correction is considered a national leader in the space, recognized for its robust rehabilitation program system and accreditation certifications through the American Correctional Association, the National Commission on Correctional Healthcare and the Prison Rape Elimination Act.