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The decision by a woman to step outside her comfort zone and into the supportive environment of P.E.E.R. SJ may have saved her life. Today, she's helping others find their strength.

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One of the things that binds us all as human beings is a collective need to belong.

But for those who may be struggling with addiction or mental health issues, finding a safe, supportive space where you can access services and interact with people who understand what you're going through might seem out of reach.

Tara O'Toole certainly felt that way not that long ago.

But then she took a chance - on herself and on an organization that is taking an innovative, holistic approach to helping people between the ages of 16 and 25 overcome their struggles by identifying and igniting their passions.

By stepping outside her comfort zone and building up the nerve to walk through the doors to P.E.E.R. SJ in uptown Saint John back in 2012 - although she didn't know it at the time - it's a decision that might have saved her life.

Taking a chance

Tara remembers walking into P.E.E.R. - which stands for Peers Engaged in Education and Recovery - "literally right off the street" and not knowing what to expect.

What she got, however, was a friendly smile and a warm welcome that helped to put her at ease.

It was that relaxed atmosphere, one that was absent of judgment or bias, that compelled her return many, many times after that.

"I wasn't really going on a straight path, I would say, and I was looking for different resources and things I could engage in to move forward with my life," Tara said. "I literally just went in thinking, 'OK, what's this place all about?', and they were just so warm and welcoming."

That initial interaction ultimately developed into a connection, and a relationship built on trust and understanding.

It was a process, she said, and a lengthy one that challenged her on a personal level each day.

But by being immersed in the kind of space that offered the chance to interact with people in her own demographic who might be going through some of the same issues, Tara said it became clear this was where she needed to be during that chapter of her life.

At P.E.E.R. SJ., Tara had access to yoga and fitness classes, as well as art and music and the opportunity to engage in friendly, meaningful conversation.

But most importantly, what she now had was a framework to develop and achieve workable goals in consultation with the team from P.E.E.R. SJ, in a setting where she could simply be herself.

"For the first time in a really long time, I felt a sense of belonging, and I came to accept that these people feel what I feel, they know what I'm going through and they're going to help me move forward," Tara said.

"It blew me away … these people cared, and it was just a different vibe, a different feeling and nothing like anything I'd experienced before."


The courage to ask for help

Tara was in a much different place about a decade ago.

Back then, she was struggling to cope with a combination of addiction and mental health issues and lacked secure housing.

For several months at one point, she found herself living alone and pregnant on the streets of Toronto.

"Knowing when to ask for help takes courage," Tara said. "That can be a really big step for people, it can be hard to be in that mindset and aware that you need that help, and then to actually ask for it … it's difficult."

Ultimately, she made the decision to help herself by taking the steps to get the help she so desperately needed.

After returning to her hometown of Saint John, where her mother and father still reside, she began reaching out to different entities with the hope of being connected to different resources.

Those efforts led her to engaging in some programming offered through Mental Health Canada, before finding a recovery centre that looked like a good fit on the surface.

But when a representative from that centre pointed her in the direction of a building located just down the street, that's where the shift began.

After an encouraging first experience at P.E.E.R., Tara decided that it warranted a return trip.

What immediately stands out, looking back on it now, she says, is the fact that people remembered her name.

There was no judgment, only compassion and real talk, she said.

Soon, with the help of staff from P.E.E.R., she had found a stable place to live, an essential component of anyone's recovery.

Tara would drift away from P.E.E.R. for a time, before eventually realizing she still had more work to do.

Her path ultimately led her back to the organization, where she was able to once again find her footing, thanks in part from recommitting to physical wellness and mindfulness, including meditation and yoga.

"That was another huge turning point for me," she said. "When I found those tools I said, 'OK, we're keeping you forever."

Tara was very clearly on the right path, and just as they had when she first walked through that door, the staff at P.E.E.R. knew there was something special there.

They were also aware that this tough-as-nails, insightful and intelligent young woman displayed all the tools to become a leader and make a profound difference in the lives of others.

Her story was inspirational, and others in that 16-to-25 age bracket - so many of whom have been known to slip through the cracks - had the perfect role model to look to for not only guidance, but also proof that no matter how hopeless things might look, that a better life was within reach.


Becoming a mentor

The transition from client to peer mentor happened relatively organically.

She was asked if she'd like to take her involvement in the organization to the next step, and after some deliberation, decided it was time to step outside that comfort zone once again.

At first, she started out teaching what she knew so well, and delivered fitness classes to P.E.E.R.SJ clients.

With time, and help from the organization, Tara had become a certified yoga instructor and she could tell she was getting through to people.

Building trust, she said, is one of the bigger obstacles that anybody goes through in their recovery, and she said it was humbling to realize that she was building connections that were built on trust and mutual understanding.

Tara remembers stepping out of her shell thanks to the support of the mentor who took the time to put her at ease when she was struggling to find her way during those early visits.

That person, Joanie Power, provided her with "all of the positivity, all of the light, and all of the tools," that she needed at the time, and being able to impart some of that on others in a similar position, she said, is both an honour and a privilege.

While every individual case is different, shaped by a life's worth of circumstances, Tara said there's one general piece of advice she has no problem sharing with others.

"Don't ever give up … know you are not alone and it's OK not to be OK," she said.

"Don't hesitate to reach out for guidance and direction when you need it [because] knowing our limits is a strength."

Have the strength to step outside your comfort zone and take steps to surround yourself with those who truly have your best interests at heart, she added.

Also - and this one is big - relapse is a part of the journey toward recovery. What's key, she stresses, is learning from those experiences and digging deep to find the strength that lies in all of us.

Strength, discipline and perseverance, she said, and belief in one's self, can make all the difference on the complex journey toward wellness.

She said it's humbling to know, in some small way, that she's helping to make a difference in the lives of others.


Live your best life

It's a crisp autumn day on the University of New Brunswick Saint John campus.

Leaves flutter gently from the maples that line the network of pathways at UNBSJ and Tara, clutching her binder of notes, walks with purpose.

She's a student here now, laser-focused on obtaining a Bachelor of Arts degree.

Tara has a very clearly-defined vision of what she wants her future to look like, and obtaining her post-secondary degree is a key part of that.

What she knows now is that she wants to dedicate her life to helping others, specifically those who might be going through the same kind of circumstances that she went through.

Her goal is to eventually gain acceptance into a school of social work, earn her BSW and ultimately become a professional in the field of social work.

She's in a good place and wants to help others find their good place as well. 

Tara also credits her "amazing support system", including her mother and father, two sisters, her brother and a small, supportive circle of friends who she can lean on at any time.

And, of course, she still has her second family at P.E.E.R. SJ, a place where she and so many others have always found a place to belong.

"I never imagined that all my chaos would ever manifest into this wonderful opportunity to help others move forward, create their own paths and happiness' and live their best lives by supporting and providing hope for them," she said.

"I truly feel blessed to be part of their process and helping them, helps me stay balanced and focused - I'm forever grateful for all these experiences which have helped shape the person I am today."







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