The Wildflower Alliance is a peer-based, recovery learning community that provides supports for people whose experiences include extreme states; emotional distress; psychiatric diagnoses; surviving trauma, addictions or complications with drugs; discrimination, oppression, and marginalization and other life-interrupting challenges; and offers spaces for healing and growth within community. Originally founded as the Western Mass Recovery Learning Community in 2007, Wildflower now operates resource centers in Greenfield, Springfield, Holyoke, and Pittsfield, as well as the first peer-run respite in Massachusetts in Northampton, and has been providing a variety of mental health supports for the town of Amherst since November of 2022.
The work in Amherst is funded by an Equitable Supports for Public Safety (EAPS) Grant, from the Massachusetts Department of Health and Human Services, that was obtained by former CRESS program director Earl Miller.
According to multiple participants at Amherst’s Community Safety and Social Justice Committee (CSSJC) meeting on November 8, Pamela Nolan Young, director of Amherst’s Department of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion and co-acting director of CRESS, said that.the work of Wildflower Alliance in Amherst would be paused at the end of the calendar year. Asked for verification however, she denied saying that. While CSSJC meetings are usually recorded, that meeting was not and so the discrepancy cannot be checked.
It is not clear whether the grant, which seems to have been automatically rolled over in July, the start of this fiscal year, will continue or be canceled, whether it will renew automatically next July, and who will decide whether Wildflower Alliance should continue to provide services to the town. . When asked about the status of the contract, both Young and Town Manager Paul Bockelman declined to comment. The criteria that will be used to make such a decision is also unclear.
According to Andy Beresky, Recovery Advocacy Coordinator at Wildflower Alliance and one of the coordinators of supports in Amherst, the brief discussions between Wildflower Alliance and the town have been non-committal. Beresky noted that while Wildflower is engaged in a variety of support activities here, with growing participation, he is not aware of the conditions for renewal of their contract or whether representatives from Wildflower will be invited to discuss them. He noted that Bockelman had communicated with the director of Wildflower on Friday, November 24 indicating that he would get back to them with more information on Monday, November 27.
According to mass.gov, Equitable Approaches to Public Safety (EAPS) is a newly funded program within the Division of Violence and Injury Prevention (DVIP). EAPS works with different municipalities to develop and implement comprehensive public safety reform, using a public safety reform partnership and broad stakeholder involvement to explore various types of alternative response models ranging from co-response with law enforcement to stand alone clinical response.” Amherst’s EAPS grant provided $450,000 from the state, with a town match of $50,000 for a total of $500,000, half of which had to be spent on external provider agencies in the community, such as Wildflower Alliance; the bulk of the funding for community providers did go to Wildflower.
The stated mission of the Wildflower Alliance is to “support healing and empowerment for our broader communities and people who have been impacted by psychiatric diagnosis, trauma, extreme states, homelessness, problems with substances and other life-interrupting challenges. We do this through: Peer-to-peer support & genuine human relationships, Alternative Healing Practices, Learning Opportunities and Advocacy. Essential to our work is recognizing and undoing systemic injustices such as racism, sexism, ableism, transphobia, transmisogyny, and psychiatric oppression.”
The alliance was the brainchild of a group of grassroots organizers who themselves had experienced psychiatric diagnoses, extreme states, trauma, oppression, and a variety of other challenges. In 2005 they developed a mission statement, core values, and a structure for what they called the Recovery Learning Community for Western Massachusetts. They received their first grant from the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health in 2007. They opened the doors of their first Resource Center, in Holyoke, in July of that year, followed by Pittsfield (October, 2007), Greenfield (January, 2008), and Springfield (May, 2009). In 2012 the Wildflower Alliance opened the first peer-run respite in Massachusetts, Afiya, in Northampton. Focus on community supports and development has continued to grow outside of the original centers, with groups, workshops, and events regularly held in a variety of settings such as housing units, hospitals, jails, and churches.
According to its website, Wildflower Alliance approaches it mission by:
- Offering trauma sensitive peer-to-peer support
- Fostering mutuality and connection building
- Creating opportunities for learning and sharing of ideas
- Advocating for change at individual and community levels
- Developing regional and national network
At the heart of its work are peer-to-peer supports. “This means coming together as regular people who have ‘been there’ ourselves, and exploring whatever people are struggling with, side-by-side. Peer support means trusting the inherent wisdom of each person, and avoiding giving advice or interpretations of what they are going through, unless they ask. Peer support is based on people’s lived experience within the mental health system with anything that is regarded as life disrupting,” the website says.
Peer-to-peer approaches offer non-clinical, non-medical ways to give people a chance to talk about what is happening in their lives without the threat of a forced intervention, such as involuntary hospitalization, or a loss of control over one’s own life, providing support without threat of repercussion or coercion more common associated with conventional social service agencies. Beresky contrasted peer-to-peer programs as a rights-based alternative to clinical modalities which tend to emphasize prescriptive interventions, structure, asymmetry and control.
He said, “We cut through the bureaucracy. There is no paperwork, no applications, no red tape, no preconditions, and no clinical planning. We just get right into the nitty gritty of forming the connections that people need, building their resiliency and a community of support.” He noted that Wildflower Alliance workers are not clinicians and not trained in clinical modalities but rather are people who have ‘been there’ and are trained to be completely present with someone as they navigate their experiences . They are trained in peer-based, peer-generated alternative approaches which are recognized worldwide, such as the Alternatives to Suicide Approach, which was recently highlighted by the World Health Organization as one of the best rights-based mental health practices in the world. He noted that in the peer to peer approach, people are not seen as problems that need to be fixed. “Acting in the fixer role reduces people’s autonomy and resilience, which teaches them that when they experience distress to submit and to put control in the hands of others. This can lead people to go along with things that don’t work for them.”
Read more about the guiding principles of Wildflower Alliance here.
Wildflower in Amherst
Wildflower Alliance coordinates several activities Amherst: a bridging program that assists people who are struggling, whether they’re overwhelmed with school, struggling to make meaningful connections, navigating housing , applying for assistance, or transitioning back into the community from the behavioral health unit at Cooley Dickinson Hospital (about 25% of patients at Cooley Dickinson’s behavioral health unit are Amherst residents) as well as offering emotional support and connection to resources in the broader community, and recovery coaching for people dealing with a variety of addiction and substance use challenges. They run three core support groups that meet weekly, Alternative to Suicide, All Recovery (an alternative to traditional 12 step programs), and Hearing Voices groups for people with who have unusual experiences or beliefs.. The latter group meets at the Unitarian Universalist Church in downtown Amherst and the two former groups meet at the Jones Library.
They also support a variety of outreach activities. They hold weekly open hours at the Amherst Survival Center, helping people navigate the complexities of life, including issues as simple as, for example, getting an ID and as complex as domestic violence or addiction. They are present at the bimonthly breakfasts at the Unitarian Universalist Church and they maintain a phone line and an email address for individual contacts. They also run a walking and talking group on Fridays at Amethyst Brook that gives people an opportunity to share whatever is on their mind with a trained listener. This has morphed into a cards and games group for the winter and meets downtown at The Works.
Wildflower Alliance also provides trainings that “share wisdom from our decades of experience in peer support, advocacy, and education.” In Amherst, they provided some of the initial trainings for CRESS responders and the peer-to-peer model was a defining feature of CRESS’ alternative approach to public safety. Some of the trainings are open to the entire community to facilitate the development of community building skills and peer support skills.
Knowledge about these services is largely promoted by word of mouth, though Wildflower also posts flyers and lists their activities in an e-newsletter and an events calendar on its website.
Bridgers can be reached by calling (413) 539-5941×301 or emailing AmherstBridgers@wildfloweralliance.org
Recovery coaches can be reached by calling (413) 539-5941×328 or emailing AmherstRecovery@wildfloweralliance.org
Beresky said that the aim of all of these programs is to try to fill in where folks fall through the gaps in the system. “It’s taken a while to figure out how the pieces fit together in Amherst but there is now a lot of need being addressed,” he said. “There are people in need of community in Amherst and there is a need to address where people are falling through the cracks. There are people who, by nature of their experience or their identity, struggle to find community and connection within Amherst and those are the people who we are reaching. There is a palpable need to stretch beyond what Amherst has been offering and to create community where people are feeling disconnected. These are the folks we are seeing — people who feel that everything else has failed them and whatever they have tried in the past, they feel they’ve run into some kind of barrier with. We’ve been setting up in Amherst for almost a year now, increasing our programming and our presence, and it would be a shame to bring it to a crashing halt now that we’ve built up this momentum.” Beresky said that given the growth of their programs in Amherst, that he could envision creating a Wildflower Alliance center here.
At the CSSJC meeting of November 8, Young spoke of the need to figure out how to integrate a “clinical piece” within the CRESS department, noting that having a clinician associated with CRESS would lessen some concerns of other public safety departments here about CRESS not being sufficiently prepared to respond to some calls. These concerns have not been aired in public, but a tense exchange took place between Fire Chief Tim Nelson and CSSJC Co-Chair Debora Ferreira, who had been asking pointed questions about ongoing operations of CRESS, and had raised other concerns: is CRESS, under the interim leadership team of Young, Nelson, Police Sergeant Janet Griffin, and CRESS Implementation Director Kat Newman, drifting away from its mandate to offer public safety services that are a clear alternative to policing (see also here)? Nelson charged that Ferreira and the CSSJC were inappropriately involving themselves in operational issues that should be left to public safety professionals.
It has not been revealed why previous CRESS Director Earl Miller was removed from his position, but given the emerging uncertainty about the future of Wildflower Alliance in Amherst (with which Miller shares a history and a philosophy) and the current tensions between CSSJC and the interim leadership of CRESS, and the professed need expressed by that interim leadership for a clinical presence within CRESS, observers and supporters of CRESS and Wildflower Alliance might wonder whether there is an overarching dissonance between the town’s public safety professionals (police and fire) and the alternative peer-to-peer philosophy established at CRESS’s founding. Perhaps a peer-to-peer approach is too dissonant for the public safety establishment in Amherst, and the ongoing turmoil in the CRESS department is a result of that dissonance? If this is the case, when a new CRESS director and a new police chief are hired, will CRESS be allowed to fulfill its mission?.
This issue is likely to be explored at the CSSJC’s public hearings on CRESS and public safety to be held on November 29 and December 2.