“The mentorship program lets you know someone is right there, next to you, always. And that not only are you giving to this person, you are also receiving from them, too,” said Cathy McFadden, a member of Independence Care System (ICS) for 18 years.

“It gives you strength, encouragement, and somebody who understands you — somebody you can understand.” -- ICS member Cathy McFadden“It gives you strength, encouragement, and somebody who understands you — somebody you can understand,” she said. “I feel like I made a difference in someone’s life.”

McFadden is one of many ICS members making a difference in the lives of other members as part of the organization’s Peer Mentoring Program. Launched in 2017, the program addresses the needs of members with spinal cord injuries (SCI) and multiple sclerosis (MS) by pairing them with mentors who have successfully adjusted to living with similar conditions.

Mentors support their “mentees” through compassion, guidance, imparted knowledge and personal experience, and empower them to adjust to the challenges of their conditions, to overcome obstacles to maintaining happiness, health and independence, and to be active in their own care and communities. The program is especially significant because people with physical disabilities like MS and SCI make up one of the highest risk groups for depression.

ICS members find the program rewarding, noting that its structure allows for collaboration, self-expression, problem solving and overall, meaningful human connection that promotes self-care and advocacy.

“You make a difference for yourself and for those who you mentee,” said ICS Advocacy Specialist Marcus Johnson, who is also an ICS member. “When you can see that mentee be able to express themselves, their own way in their own story, that’s the magic right there. When they go to medical appointments, when they go out in the community, they can express themselves, what they need. It’s a win-win.”

Focusing on the “can,” not “can’t”

At its core, the peer mentoring program is centered on the fundamental belief that all people have strengths. By fostering a strength-based approach, members focus on what they can do, rather than what they can’t, while still being mindful of challenges and issues. By focusing on skills, strengths and resources, the attention shifts from injury, inability, helplessness and loss to exploration, implementation and hope of what can be achieved.

As part of the program, peer mentors meet with or have a phone call with their mentees at least twice a month over the course of a year. ICS program staff use informative quality-of-life surveys to evaluate the success of the project.

“The mentoring program has shown me that even though people doubt me, as long as I don’t doubt myself, I can keep going.” -- ICS member Kimberly Trenard.“The mentoring program has shown me that even though people doubt me, as long as I don’t doubt myself, I can keep going,” said ICS member Kimberly Trenard. “If you dream it, you have to believe it. The program actually helps you do those things because you have someone by your side who is helping you go through the scary times, the good times, the sad times, the bad times and still helping you push through.”

Through the use of role-playing and other exercises, ICS trains mentors to effectively communicate with mentees and navigate situations that require guidance and support when addressing hardships. The emphasis for mentors is to strengthen listening skills, develop lines of questioning to elicit responses to better understand mentees, identify problems and strengths, and to set goals that promote greater self-esteem and resolution of common struggles.

As the program continues to unite people with disabilities in the community, members, including Trenard, describe it as empowering — a foundation of family, trust and understanding where people come together to share their stories and struggles, engage in a supportive, collaborative environment and ultimately learn to become confident directors of their own care.

“I am more happy with the person I am now,” said Trenard, “and that is because I am more mentally, physically and spiritually happy.  And that plays a difference in how you see life, how you live life, and how you feel about yourself.”

Developed in collaboration with the Mount Sinai Peer Mentoring Program and its Mentor Coordinator Jim Cesario, the ICS Peer Mentoring Program is made possible by a grant from the United Spinal Association New York City Chapter, with additional support from the Axis Project, which helped ICS identify suitable mentors for the program.

For a peek into the Peer Mentoring Program, watch ICS’ latest video here.

For more information about the Peer Mentoring Program, contact ICS Disability Program Director Elaine Castelluccio at elaine.castelluccio@icsny.org.