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How Can I Teach, But to a Friend? | Cathey Capers, PPM

"How can I teach, but to a friend?"

 ~ Aristotle

As Poetry as a Tool for Wellness (PTW) enters a new phase, this phrase of Aristotle’s becomes more evident. This month PTW launched the first training series filled with Peer Support Specialists in Recovery (Substance Abuse), and Mental Health, as well as Family Partners of children living with a mental health diagnosis. The Peer Support Specialists are people that have lived through one of these issues themselves and are now supported through the Texas State Health Department’s Office of Behavioral Health Services with training and wages to offer support to others on that journey.


Excitement mounted as the eagerness for PTW, a first of this kind of expressive arts training to be offered, became apparent. Posted on a state holiday, the registrations began filling up immediately and soon the first training class was filled. As the first session got underway early this month, participants relished the opportunity to respond to quotes and poems on the theme of Reinvention; something they all knew about! Their own poems reflected their deep experience and they responded to one another as a friend would—with kindness, support, and understanding.

Importantly, leading the class was a fellow Certified Peer Facilitator and Trainer of PTW, and Peer Support Specialist, Athena (Tena) McClendon. Tena modeled all the qualities people have come to appreciate about this special curriculum: respect, attention, deep listening, invitation, community building, and especially, friendship. While she leads these sessions she is also mentor to an Apprentice that will soon be able to lead these as well. By the close of this first of eight weeks, participants from every corner of the state of Texas had drawn themselves into a close learning circle of friends.


During this same period, I was fortunate to be witness to a Celebration taking place at Lane Murray Women’s Prison outside of Austin, Texas. There, the first 8-week PTW series had recently been completed and participants were proudly sharing the poems they had written within and between their weekly sessions. These were poems of struggle, of truth and of triumph.


By “struggle” I’m talking about severe and long-lasting trauma. Witnessing the suicide of their partner, feeling as though they lost their child, suffering abuse and neglect throughout childhood, being incarcerated from the tender age of seventeen. When I say “truth” I heard poems of witness, poems of responsibility, poems that mined the wounded heart and soul, poems that left the dirt on, poems that tell it like it is. When I say “triumph" I see each person standing tall, not ashamed of tears, proclaiming themselves, reaching out to support others, seeing their world anew, imagining hope and a new road, clasping the anthology of their poems to their breast.


Peer Facilitators for these sessions had been trained by graduates of PTW who came together to form the organization known as Circle Up, that would serve women in prison, in circles offering healing curricula. The spirit of friendship between all of the women present were deep and palpable and under such circumstances, I would add, lifesaving. Poetry had become more than a tool for wellness, it had served as the vehicle for such loving and lasting bonds. (In appreciation, participants composed a thank you note drawing lines from each of the poems that had been offered throughout the eight sessions into a gratitude-filled, meaningful testament of their transformation).


The significance of both of these programs is that each has within it the seeds not only of salvation, but also sustainability. As Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest and Founder of The Center for Contemplation and Action notes, Transformed people transform people.

The growth and support of the Peer Facilitator Training Program, Poetry as a Tool for Wellness, continues to offer those who have been transformed the opportunity to reach out and offer this in friendship to others in need.


I’m brimming with deep affection and pride (for them) of all these Facilitators.


Cathey Capers, M.Ed, PPM, is a community health educator and certified Practitioner of Poetic Medicine. She trains and coordinates an expanding team of Peer Facilitators leading healing poetry circles among adults living with mental illness, hospital chaplains, and counselors. She is a graduate of the Shalem Institute’s Leading Contemplative Prayer Groups and Retreats Program and enjoys providing learning opportunities in contemplative practices that foster renewal and poetry circles focused on healing and connection. 


Below we share affirmations/messages of gratitude from Kelsey Wood and Theresa Antoinette Serrano from Dr. Lane Murray Unit Women’s Prison:

Responding to a question about how Kelsey would describe the Poetry as a Tool for Wellness sessions that Kelsey experienced this spring:


As someone who didn’t want to take it at first I was scared to really be vulnerable in a place where I was surrounded by my fellow peers if you feel like you can’t do it just do it cause you never know how healing it can be for you I know now that it was something I will always remember and enjoy for the rest of my life and I will not look at myself the same as the days get long I am able now to enjoy people I look at everyone differently I just had the opportunity to work with the warden today and see a side a lot of people don’t that class is not just a class it is a moment of healing and learning that you are not alone you learn to love yourself for you it might seem like you can’t do it but you can it doesn’t have to be perfect or professional it just only has to come from the heart to know there are people out there who care for us as individuals it is a blessing all in its own I am thankful that my friend told me about it and told me to come because I would have missed out on something amazing if you are second guessing yourself don’t do it just do it Y.O.L.O! I thank you for everything that y’all do and I pray y’all can have these classes on other units in the future it was a blessing to get to know y’all.


When asked for permission to share this testimony, Kelsey added this…


…I would like people to know that prisoners are not all bad. Sometimes we make mistakes that we have to pay for that is why I chose to write poetry it's a way to express how I really feel it helps for those who have a tough time expressing themselves verbally and saying how they feel when you can just write it down it is better because your heart knows what it feels when your brain doesn’t poetry doesn’t have to rhyme its words and emotions that come from the heart and soul that tell the real story. I thank y’all for everything and I can’t wait to see y’all at the next class and I plan to bring people with me I tell everybody about it thank y’all again and keep up the good work.


Kelsey Wood


Dr. Lane Murray Unit Women’s Prison

Gatesville, Texas

Spring 2024


A photo of a handwritten note that reads: Even though our boots walked before us. You didn't see us as, so and so. You knew we were lost and helpless but it wasn't our fault. You knew coming in that others would say. You can't save them all, yet you refused to accept it because you see we also have places to go. When you listened to our words you reached into our darkness. Pulled out our wonder and let us discover the Gold with in us. You let us dance away our wounds and helped us shatter the darkness into a thousand lights of Sun. Because of you all. We discovered reinvention and our first reinvention is us. You encouraged our refusal to be scorched by our past and thrive like the yellow tulip. You allowed us to be guest in each other's house an dlet us create our own autobiography through the course of 8 weeks. Which lead [sic] us to healing but also to pain of an end. Thank you for letting our words be written, for tieing [sic] our shoes with your kindness and showing us if we reinvent whatever our lives give us we find poems. xo Theresa Serrans LaToyaDoe

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