Staff and participants at the SPIRIT Peer Empowerment Center have streamlined their commitment to recovery |

Staff and participants at the SPIRIT Peer Empowerment Center have streamlined their commitment to recovery

The staff at Spirit Peer Empowerment Center recently met to discuss changes at the Grass Valley peer support center. Back row, standing left to right, are Trish Hofmeister, Mary Neward and Mindy Stidham. Sitting in chairs, from left, are Erica Cass and Candy Kelly. Sitting on the couch, from left, Pauline Abrons, Barbara Lindsay-Burns and Michelle Rose.
Cory Fisher/

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Spirit Peer Empowerment Center

276 Gates Place, Grass Valley


Hours: 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday

There was a renewed sense of enthusiasm last week among the staff at the SPIRIT Peer Empowerment Center in Grass Valley.

After closing for a full three weeks to re-examine and reassess the center’s mission and strategy, the staff returned with a new plan, a new commitment to the population they serve and an optimistic outlook.

More than 15 years ago, the hugely popular nonprofit opened its doors at no charge to people facing mental health challenges. Seventy-five percent of the facility was, and still is, funded by money from the Mental Health Services Act. The remaining comes from fundraising and in-kind volunteers.

In a home-like setting on five acres, trained peer supporters offer a holistic approach, acceptance, support, education and advocacy. This includes one-on-one peer support, exercise classes, food, art and creative writing classes, gardening, showers, laundry facilities, weekly in-house meals, a kitchen, a host of support groups and more.

“The three populations we generally serve are those with mental health challenges; the homeless — where mental health is often the underlying cause; and those struggling with addiction, many of whom have mental health issues and are using substances as a way to self medicate,” said program co-coordinator Barbara Lindsay-Burns. “All share the same experience of being pushed to the outer edges of society, then eventually falling off. They suffer loneliness, shame, fear, judgement and alienation. Many of us staffers have been there, too.”

But in recent years, the staff had begun to feel they had become less effective at communicating their mission to participants, which is to provide each participant a safe, confidential place to heal and begin a journey toward recovery.

“There was a lot of confusion between the staff and participants,” said Lindsay-Burns. “We had begun to feel like we were doing little more than providing crisis management and basic living services to homeless individuals during the day. Participants didn’t see us as peers, which we are. Many of us are volunteers. They didn’t fully realize just how invested we are in their recovery — that our whole goal is to be a mental health empowerment center. We needed more buy-in from the participants.”


As a result of the staff’s three-week hiatus, new policies and rules have been implemented as a way to more effectively steer participants in the direction of committing to their self recovery. Steps have also been taken to foster a better sense of community and communication between participants and staff.

“The biggest thing we did — after revising the rules and regulations — was to redo our intake form,” said executive director Michelle Rose. “Now participants sign an agreement that commits them to taking specific steps toward their growth and recovery, and explains that our staff is committed too.”

The key is that, in order to take advantage of the services at the SPIRIT Peer Empowerment Center, each participant must demonstrate that they are invested in their own self-betterment. This includes taking part in a one-on-one intake interview with a staff member, a signed agreement, attending regular support groups, activity groups, meeting monthly with a peer counselor, attending meetings with staff and participants together, performing household chores and more.

“Since we’ve had these community meetings, we’ve realized that some participants knew very little bit about us as staff members — that we have stories, too,” said Lindsay-Burns. “They are getting a better understanding that we are not management — we all share the same vision.”


“It started to feel a little like ‘us and them,’” said program co-coordinator Candy Kelly. “But now we sit down together, listen to their experiences and explain the agreement. Some participants didn’t realize how many groups and activities we offered. Since we’ve been having community meetings with staff and participants every morning, things have really changed. Communication had broken down before, it felt like two camps. Now we’re working together.”

With new enrollments finally in place last week, one participant explained the differences he’s observed.

“Now everyone’s on the same page with the same vision,” he said. “The rules and expectations are clear, there’s clarity.”

In addition to better communication between participants and staff, Lindsay-Burns has seen stronger bonds between participants. For example, thefts are down and people are beginning to protect each other’s few possessions. She feels confident that the newly implemented strategies will empower all involved.

“We’re a stronger community now — we’re feeling renewed and reinvigorated,” said Lindsay-Burns. “Many members of these three populations don’t have support like this anywhere else. They feel judged, like outsiders. We want them to get to that place where they feel strong and no longer feel diminished.”

To contact Staff Writer Cory Fisher, email her at

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