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Poetry as a Tool for Wellness: The Natural Authority of Peer Facilitators | Cathey Capers

A photo of a pale pink lily laying on a bed of lily pads in a body of water. There are blurry green reflections of foliage and a clear reflection of the lily on the water.

Poetry as a Tool for Wellness:

The Natural Authority of Peer Facilitators

Written by Cathey Capers

“Spiritually speaking, authority comes from passing through trial and darkness and coming out the other side even more free, happy, alive and contagious! Transformed people transform people…Where we ourselves have changed, suffered and been healed is where we are most in a position to be an effective change agent for others. After a while, that becomes pretty obvious.”

~ Richard Rohr, The Authority of Those Who Have Suffered

I recently came upon this passage from Richard Rohr, Franciscan priest and Founder of the Center for Contemplation and Action. It immediately brought to mind the team of Peer Facilitators whom I have worked with for the past 8 years offering Poetry as a Tool for Wellness (PTW). In fact, I recognized it as the foundation for the PTW Peer Facilitator’s Manual and its associated training program.

In 2015, I approached the newly opened Austin Clubhouse, to offer to provide a series of 8 poetry-based classes that had been very welcomed and effective in Clubhouses in the Midwest. (Clubhouse is an international network of voluntary, member-based organizations sharing a mission to end social and economic isolation for people with mental illness). Utilizing a Guide published by Lisa DeVuono and The Institute for Poetic Medicine I found a welcome audience and soon witnessed the dramatic impact that offering poetry in a safe and creative context had upon participants, all of who had serious mental health diagnoses.

One of the most severely mentally ill participants, S., entered that first series of classes disheveled and downcast. Throughout our first session, she never looked up or out from behind her tangle of hair, she never spoke. But she returned, weekly. Gradually she peeked out from behind her hair, shared lines that she had written, and even brought in visual art that she made to accompany her poetry. Her countenance grew brighter by the week. She connected, kindly, with others in our small group, and they responded in kind.

Following the initial series, the Director approached to remark upon the “transformation” of S.. Within the same period, S. approached and asked about being able to continue to offer this series herself over the upcoming summer. I invited participants who were interested in learning to facilitate the classes to participate in a course I would lead over the next few months. In my own career as a community health educator, I had observed time and again how much more effective and influential peers could be in impacting a social or health issue. First as a volunteer in the Peace Corps working with village mothers who understood the issues facing other families. Then among community AIDS activists, who were survivors determined to save their ravaged communities, as well as in work with low-income mothers trying to nourish their families and sharing their wisdom, resourcefulness and activism. This turn towards the members of the Austin Clubhouse poetry group to lead the PTW sessions seemed a natural choice.

Four individuals stepped up, including S.; thus began the PTW Facilitator Training Program, which was dedicated to S. in the wake of her unexpected death a few months into the training.

One of the most poignant memories of these early years of PTW and the training program group was walking into the intensive care unit where S. lay unconscious from a sudden heart attack. One of our groups, Martha, had assembled S’s poetry and art and arranged it around her bedside. Martha sat beside S. reading S.’s own poems to her, many of which had images of the freedom she might eventually find beyond this life. As physicians and nurses entered, they actually met S. through her poems and art, often pausing to listen to one and to comment on its beauty. We noted a subtle but important change in the manner in which they began to address and respond to S., who never regained consciousness.

Martha, Kristin and Athena became Peer Facilitators of PTW. Each of them has their own story of suffering with a mental health diagnosis, but more importantly, how poetry became a part of the transformative healing that they experienced and now offer to others. I fondly recall one class in which a member of Austin Clubhouse suddenly looked up at Martha with surprise in his voice and asked, “Are you a member (meaning she also had a mental health diagnosis)?” and then, referring to her Facilitation, stated, “You’re so brilliant!” Each Peer Facilitator, in their own unique way and voice, embodies the promise and possibility that other members can aspire to in this realm of healing poetry.

The 2020 pandemic began just as Poetry as a Tool for Wellness: A Peer Facilitator’s Manual was coming off the presses. Sixteen years of on-the-ground experience working with poetry as a catalyst for nurturing strengths and skills among people recovering from mental illness formed the backbone of this new resource. We knew then, more than ever, it needed to be made available as widely as possible.

With a seed grant from IPM, an online program was developed to inform and empower people working in the mental health field and beyond to utilize this effective resource and begin offering its 8-week poetry sessions in their respective communities. Counselors, writers, members of other Clubhouses, peer specialists, hospital Chaplains, advocates for the incarcerated and survivors of domestic and sexual abuse are among the people who attend our trainings. To date, over two hundred individuals have participated in experiential training classes or taken advantage of the Peer Facilitator’s Manual and/or self-paced training webinars.

Peer facilitators who just a few years earlier were timid participants in their first experiential poetry sessions, demonstrated the transformative impact of the program by sharing their own journey to lead PTW, and by stepping up to this new level of empowering others to follow their lead. Leading breakout groups, designing informational graphic materials, adapting to the virtual platform, administering a resourceful Facebook group were all challenges they eagerly embraced. We are ecstatic hearing reports from the field of those across the globe putting into practice this resource and the interactive training by hosting their own Poetic Medicine circles using Poetry as a Tool for Wellness: A Peer Facilitator’s Manual.

Sadly, Martha passed away this fall. She leaves a legacy of active poetic medicine circles in her home town, now led by volunteer members, as well as dozens of students from across the country and world who participated in her experiential training groups. The deeply spiritual authority that Martha possessed will continue to influence untold numbers of individuals as the ripples of her teaching moves ever outward.

As we begin now to recruit new trainers from among our students, we heed the evidence of our own experience and Richard Rohr’s observation above, which we continue to witness among our team and participants…

Transformed people transform people.


If you would like to learn more about this program view the Intro to PTW video, visit our Poetry as a Tool for Wellness page, and learn about the fund created in honor of Martha. We welcome your inquiries about and participation in this program. If you are interested in joining the waiting list for the summer program please complete this form.


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