On Routes: Reflections from a peer facilitator and a member on the vital role of the Routes community centre

March 26, 2024

When Dorothy Leroux started to feel better after burning out from a long-time career in developmental services, she knew she didn’t want to go back to the same environment that had driven her into a mental health crisis.  

She thought she could start by volunteering somewhere as a gentle transition back to the workplace and looked into opportunities at CMHA Toronto. Instead of a volunteer position, CMHA Toronto hired her to work in the Social Resource Centre (later amalgamated into the Routes community centre) for a few hours a week. 

 “I hadn’t worked for a few years and I had a lot of insecurities,” Dorothy says, “but within a couple of weeks, I was like, ‘I can do this!’ and it's progressed from there.” Growing more confident in her ability to manage working while maintaining her mental health, she gradually increased her hours until, in 2016, she became a full-time peer facilitator at Routes. This month (March 2024), she celebrated 13 years with CMHA Toronto.  

It’s like I found my people. 

A sense of belonging permeates every interaction with the staff and members of Routes, and it’s no accident. Routes is dedicated to creating a welcoming, safe, and inclusive space for people with mental health challenges. And one of the key ways it does that is by hiring staff with their own lived experience. 

It results in a growth and recovery-oriented experience for everyone: staff and members alike.  

“I met the most extraordinary people. When I heard their stories I used to tear up. Some of the things that they've been through were horrendous yet all I could think was ‘the strength of this person!’ Despite what they’ve been through, they still have that thing, whatever it is, inside – they can still be kind and generous. I’ve met some extraordinary people and I'm so glad that I met them because it made me more sensitive to those struggling with their mental health, including myself.” 

Dorothy has a deep knowledge of the courage it takes to walk into Routes for the first time and expose one’s vulnerabilities. Routes does not require people to reveal their diagnosis, but they do ask that people self-identify with a mental health problem. 

“People will come in and have no idea what to expect. They are thinking ‘I'm alone. I'm not feeling good. And I'm going to this place where I have no idea what to expect,’” Dorothy explains. In that moment, sharing her own lived experience helps reduce people’s anxieties around attending or participating in the centre’s activities.  

We've all gone through our own stuff and know what it's like to be judged. Then you start clamming up. You hold it in and it doesn't get expressed. And that's certainly not therapeutic. 

It’s the start of a connection that can have far-reaching and long-term impacts, as it has for Aaron Smith, a long-time Routes member. 

Aaron first met Dorothy when he was referred to CMHA Toronto to better cope with the mental health issues related to his multiple sclerosis: “It was the ups and downs of it all and trying to control my feelings, trying to get a good grasp on it,” he says. Since then, he’s lived in many different parts of the city as his physical and mental health has changed.  

Recently, Aaron found a new apartment in an assisted living facility run by the March of Dimes. He’s got a lakeside view and a balcony, and people to help him with daily tasks so he can live as independently as possible. The fact that it’s in Oakville hasn’t prevented him from attending Routes every week – he has transportation that is paid for as part of his medical treatment. 

It is clear when speaking with Aaron that he considers his participation at Routes a service to the other members as much as it is a resource for himself.  

In his early days at Routes he took it upon himself to create cards for the other members, made from his own drawings and those that members left behind at the end of a day. “I got the idea from previous places where I used to work. We used to get birthday cards and everyone would sign – you’d get a card with everybody's name on it, and so I started that here at Routes and it went over really well.” 

 It was a way for Aaron to get to know the other members: “They give you that welcoming feeling. I might not know you but here's a card, signed by everyone, to wish you a happy birthday. You feel that sense of belonging,” Aaron says. “And it made me feel good too, like I was not alone. It made me feel good that other people felt good. I called it my therapy.”  

Sitting around watching television all day is not the healthiest thing. Coming here is a good resource to get out of my place so I don’t have to feel like I was locked in for hours. It gave me a bit of hope.

While every Routes peer facilitator has their own areas of program specialization, the structure of the programming is anything but hierarchical. “It’s not like one person is up here, and another is down there. It feels like we’re all on the same page,” Aaron says. Routes members frequently take the lead, not only suggesting activities – as Aaron has – but sometimes co-facilitating a group if there is an unanticipated absence. 

The interaction between peer facilitators and Routes members provides a mutual source of strength for both, and so do the Routes programs. Dorothy, trained to facilitate one of Routes’ mental health workshops, the Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP), says these have been as useful to her as they are for Routes members.  

At one point, she explains, “I started not feeling well again and I started to get really scared. But WRAP helped me. Before, I might have gone down that slippery slope, but this time I was able to stop and ask myself, ‘what’s different now than before? What's going on around me?’ And I wasn't taking my meds properly, I wasn't sleeping with my sleep machine. All these little things added up to me not feeling well, but I was able to recognize it this time and put things in place. I started feeling better within a few weeks.” 

I can't imagine working anywhere else. One day I was listening and everybody was just roaring with laughter. I had never heard that at any workplace before.

Both Dorothy and Aaron emphasize the value of Routes to those who attend the centre. Aaron appreciates the community-building and socialization aspects of the centre. He has spent time feeling isolated and homebound and says, “You come here and you get to talk, or talk things out. It can give you ideas. It lets you know you’re not alone and that other people are going through [similar things].” 

While Aaron is currently able to live independently with the support of the caregivers in his assisted living facility, he knows that “when you stop [being able] to do things for yourself, there can be a real dark side. When you don't have hope anymore, or start feeling that way, things can go down rapidly.” Routes has helped Aaron connect with the right supports and resources, and attending the centre has helped counteract feelings of hopelessness and fear. 

Similarly, Dorothy sees Routes’ value as a practical resource and as preventative: “It gives people a place to go. I think it probably keeps them out of the hospital,” says Dorothy. She explains that, beyond the social aspect, there are concrete supports that Routes provides. They help members apply for the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) or help them do their taxes. There is also the mental health support Routes offers, not only the formal programming but informal check-ins: “We do one-to-ones when somebody's not doing well. We call people if we haven't seen them for a while, ask them ‘how are you doing’ and ‘do you need anything?’” 

“It's a safe place for people to come. They don't need to act different. If you're not having a good day, we tell people to let us know so we can be sensitive to that, offer them support and resources. They might not have showered, but they dressed. They may fall asleep on the couch and I'm okay with that,” Dorothy says. “If you need to come here to be safe, just come on down.”

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