Emmie Best was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes when she was 7 years old, and at first, she had trouble accepting her diagnosis or telling anyone about it.
“The first thing I thought someone would assume is, ‘Oh well, she’s fat. She’s overweight. She’s done this to herself,’” she said.
Meeting with other young people with diabetes and chronic diseases helped her accept the diagnosis and prepare her to mentor her sister, she said at a recent gathering of older members of the Peer Mentor Project.
“Yeah, I have to deal with this for the rest of my life, but so does she, so does he, and we all can help each other find ways to cope,” she said. Best and the members she met with have all graduated from high school, but they expect to help train a new group of peer mentors in June.
The Peer Mentor Project was formed about 10 years ago and brings together kids across the region with a variety of different diagnoses, including autism, anxiety and depression, epilepsy, traumatic brain injuries and diabetes. The group was organized by Liza Tregillus, who was working as a regional social worker for San Juan Basin Public Health at the time. She has continued to work with peer groups and finds that the gatherings help show teens that their health differences can be an asset.
“When teens who have challenging health conditions are put in a leadership role, it takes them out of feeling like a victim or a patient or ‘poor me’ to ‘I’m so cool,’” she said.
The group typically meets once a month, and mentors can be asked to meet with other young people who have similar conditions. The group has also held community education events to teach fellow students about their conditions. But it’s up to the group how much time the members want to dedicate to the project and if they want to hold events, Tregillus said.
Support groups for parentsTregillus, who is a parent, youth coach and play therapist, runs similar peer-mentoring groups for parents of children with chronic health challenges.
Members of those groups helped fund Cafe au Play, a nonprofit co-founded by Tregillus, which offers nontraditional child care and serves as a meeting space for all the peer groups. She works with parents of children who have autism, epilepsy, diabetes and those with children younger than 4 who have developmental delays. She also runs a lactation support group, a prenatal yoga group, a group for parents with twins and triplets, among others. She is also going to start a group for parents of children with mental health challenges.
“I love being the little sheep dog getting these parents together,” Tregillus said.
Lois O’Dell is parenting a child with autism and found the parent group helped her learn what to expect as her son aged and find resources in Durango, such as counselors, to help him.
“It’s kind of like a scavenger hunt or a treasurer hunt to try to put the pieces together,” she said.
It’s also helped her keep from feeling like “an island out in the sea,” she said.
Training new mentorsTregillus recently considered disbanding the youth mentoring program because recruiting students can be difficult. Then she was contacted by a Durango High School student interested in serving students with anxiety and depression. The request prompted Tregillus to train a new group of peer mentors this June with Becca Heath, a former peer mentor and a student studying for her master’s degree in social work.
Anxiety and depression are common among teens with chronic health conditions and being part of the group has helped them overcome feelings of isolation, they said.
“We’re all different and we all know that, but we’re all different in a way that we can relate to each other,” said peer mentor Anna Caplan, who has a heart condition, scoliosis and a variety of other health conditions.