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Teamwork makes the dream work in training youth to support peers

'I know what it's like to be bullied. I also know what it's like to have no one to confide in and we can provide that in this amazing space at OUTLoud'
2022 06 29 LERN OUTLoud Peer Support (Campaigne)
(L-R) Seth Compton, Mark Caldwell, Erin Russell and Kari Sterling are collaborating to train youth peer supporters.

Mark Caldwell has been through a host of personal and family struggles in his life.

He says, as the only openly gay male in his high school, he spent much of his time growing up feeling alone.

Through a new youth peer support training initiative, Caldwell's aim is to help kids today in similar situations never feel that same loneliness, to always have someone to turn to, and to have a trusted person who will just listen.

Caldwell regrets never having told his late mother that he is gay. "It's probably one of my top three regrets. I knew that she knew but I never provided her with that information. To not get that 'I love you,' that 'everything is going to be OK,' it has sort of left me with that hole. I hope this helps the youth of the future to be open, honest, and true to themselves, and to not be afraid to share their feelings and what they're going through."

The chair of the board for LERN (Lived Experience & Recovery Network), Caldwell and team are excited to announce, in partnership with OUTLoud, the debut of the Youth Peer Support Training Program. The project received a $225,700 Ontario Trillium Foundation grant over three years and includes certified peer support training for youth (ages 12–18), along with a peer support internship to be delivered to youth who have lived experience of mental health challenges and/or substance use problems.

"Having someone that knows exactly what," today's youth is going through is key, says Caldwell. "I know what it's like to be bullied. I also know what it's like to have no one to confide in and we can provide that in this amazing space at OUTLoud."

See related: OUTLoud's safe space gets spruced up

The eight training sessions for the first cohort of 10 peer supporters will run between July 26 and August 18. LERN and OUTLoud are now accepting applications for youth 12–18. All are welcome. Up to 120 peer supporters can be trained over the three-year course of the grant. Apply online through LERN or in person at OUTLoud, located at 123 Delaware Ave.

Organizers say the training program will empower youth to take on leadership roles within their communities while helping themselves and others in their own recovery and wellness. Once trained, these Youth Peer Supporters will be partnered with community agencies to offer peer support, completing their internship while also satisfying their volunteer hours required for graduation. 

Seth Compton is the founder and executive director of OUTLoud, a community organization that provides a safe space for youth and has been enhancing the empowerment of peer support within youth. Compton notes peer support is encouraged and happens organically at OUTLoud but the training sessions will take the practice to the next level and will create meaningful engagement of youths within the community.

"It's been a rough two years. COVID, isolation, online learning, all of those things have played a huge part in the state of mental health in our kids today," observes Compton. "This is a great opportunity for us to work toward creating healthier children."

The lead trainers for this project, are LERN staff members Kari Sterling and Erin Russell who are both certified Peer Support Core Competencies Trainers and Peer Support Workers. Both bring lived experience in trauma and youth mental health to the training sessions.

"There's nothing greater than the feel of being able to walk alongside somebody and help them along their journey, whatever that means to them," Sterling says. As a peer supporter "you need to be compassionate, you need to be empathetic, you need to be a good listener, and these are skills that anybody can learn but there are definitely some who are more geared to it. But, when you have the resources and the tools and you know how to properly support somebody in a situation, anybody can be great at it." 

Students will go through 15 modules for a total training time of 30 hours over three weeks. Russell will help lead the sessions at OUTLoud and says peer support can save lives by helping kids realize they are not alone in their struggles.

"Listening is such an essential thing," she says. "It takes a community to be there for one another, and to love and connect."

This is not the first collaboration for Compton and Caldwell. In November 2021, were both named YMCA Peacemakers in recognition of their community work embodying Participation, Empathy, Advocacy, Community and Empowerment to make northeastern Ontario a great place to live. Coincidentally, a third recipient of the YMCA honour, Geoff Richardson, is part of the ownership team that facilitated OUTLoud's move to the former Summit Room at the Voyager Inn.

"Mark and I have similar stories," Compton explains. "Being an open trans person here in our community, I haven't really experienced too much discrimination, personally. We get a lot of love and hate based on the space itself because people don't understand. As Mark said, it's about the love and understanding and moving forward."

"When people open up about their struggles, it's hard to know what to say," Caldwell explains. "There is no right or wrong way, per se, it's giving these kids the tools to make sure that they don't feel uncomfortable to have these tough conversations. We all know our own struggles but it's important to empathize with what others are going through."

This team is determined to provide the training needed so youth can support one another. They say the time to act is now, as they encourage peers to empower peers towards wellness and recovery.

According to the Mental Health Commission of Canada, less than 20 per cent of children and youth in Canada receive appropriate treatment for mental illness. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for Canadian youth aged 15–24.

Stu Campaigne

About the Author: Stu Campaigne

Stu Campaigne is a full-time news reporter for, focusing on local politics and sharing our community's compelling human interest stories.
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