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Senior Peers outreach program brings help, hope

Volunteers put 'one person in your corner'

Senior citizens are often faced with major life changes that can leave them feeling isolated and depressed.

But 12 newly trained Senior Peer Counselors are waiting to offer a helping hand to Hood River residents over the age of 50 who are struggling to overcome:

* the death or illness of a spouse.

* health problems that restrict mobility and bring loss of independence.

* a relocation that has left them bereft of a support system.

* retirement that has left a void in both time and purpose.

"It's amazing how having one person in your corner can turn your life around," said Darlene Kemper, program consultant from the Mid-Columbia Center for Living (MCCL).

"Seniors have a lot of losses but they also have a lot of pluses," said B.J. Carter, who recently stepped down from four years as a peer counselor.

Helping the elderly capitalize on those pluses has led Kemper to work closely with Joella Bullock, MCCL supervisor of the peer counselor program, and Heidi Musgrave, director of the Hood River Valley Adult Center, in the training of 25 new recruits that will serve clients in Hood River, Wasco, Sherman, Wheeler and Gilliam counties.

Although Hood River was the fourth county in the state to bring peer counselors on board five years ago, the program is being initiated for the first time in the other three counties. The Mid-Columbia Senior Center in The Dalles has stepped forward to handle referrals from agencies and individuals within the new service districts.

There is no charge for peer counseling program, but seniors must agree to be enrolled in the program, even if they are referred by a family member or care provider. The purpose behind peer counseling is help to seniors overcome a life transition by introducing them to the many activities and programs they can access for socialization and outreach.

Once a senior has enrolled in the program, he/she will meet with a peer counselor for about an hour per week. Counseling sessions may take place at the senior center, at home, or at another convenient location upon request.

But two past peer counselors said the gain from those visits is often twofold, since they came away with valuable knowledge and skills about aging -- and often made a new friend.

"I benefited more than anyone else -- you can't give and not receive," said Carter, who still visits two of her former clients.

"I thought it was a rewarding experience because the people were so grateful," said Carole Murphy, who is also stepping down after four years in the inaugural class of peer counselors.

Get Involved: `Peer' info

To qualify as a volunteer in the Senior Peer program, interested individuals must also be 50 years of age or older. They must undergo between 40-50 hours of specialized training in the areas of mental health and aging. In addition, they are subjected to a criminal background check and held to strict confidentiality standards. Their work is overseen by Joella Bullock, a licensed professional mental health therapist, who holds a meeting once a week.

Heidi Musgrave, Hood River Valley Adult Center director, said that many of the peer counselors have themselves overcome the same challenges facing their clients, which makes their intervention highly effective.

"The life experiences of the group are so varied that we have something for everyone," said Musgrave.

For more information, or to make a referral, call Musgrave at 386-2060.

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