The Importance of Certified Peer Specialists within a Center of Excellence

Renée Frink-Boyd
renée walking with a participant in a hallway

COE + Peer Support = Better Outcomes!

At Pathways to Housing PA, we operate one of the only non-hospital based Opioid Use Disorder Centers of Excellence (OUD-COE) in our community, in partnership with Prevention Point Philadelphia and Project HOME's Stephen Klein Wellness Center. These Centers of Excellence were created to help address the overdose crisis taking place in Philadelphia. They were designed to better provide community outreach to all individuals in Philadelphia with an opioid use disorder. Pathways’ COE maintains medication-assisted treatment, recovery support services, and benefits coordination to 230 participants with opioid use disorder.

I’ve had the pleasure of working within Pathways’ COE program as a Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT) Care Manager/Certified Peer Specialist (CPS). In this role, I witnessed firsthand the unique relationships that were created between participants and peer specialists, myself included. It can be quite difficult to engage with participants who have opioid use disorder, especially since they are grappling with various other environmental challenges. 

 People who use substances don’t need saving! They need understanding, empathy, compassion and guidance.

Our participants usually have case managers, medical outreach, parole officers or other staff all trying to talk to them about their housing status or their addictions and the behaviors that come with them. Often times, community outreach from behavioral health is not something our participants plan for throughout their days. This can be a hindrance to participants, especially if they feel like the workers who are engaging with them are trying to “save them from themselves”. People who use substances don’t need saving! They need understanding, empathy, compassion and guidance. Fortunately, peer specialists are experts at this and can provide all of those things, all of the time, without judgement, due to their own lived experiences.

Ken, Pathways staff member with participant
Ken, a CPS on Team 2, with a participant at her home

The role of a peer specialist is incredibly unique. We are individuals who have been successful in our own recovery journey with mental health challenges and/or substance use. Because of this, peer specialists are equipped to support and assist other people who are experiencing similar situations. Through empathy, shared understanding, respect, and mutual empowerment, peer specialists provide individuals with hope, education, advocacy and genuine connectedness. 

The use of peer specialists in Pathways’ COE program has been beneficial for introducing harm reduction strategies to our participants, ultimately saving lives. We can draw on our own lived experiences to help participants understand that they can use substances in a healthier way. We also explain that if they’re interested, they can start their own recovery journey, no matter what that may look like. As a peer specialist, I’ve been there! The details of my story and journey may differ, but ultimately our stories are the same. Our lives became unmanageable due to the use of substances. When participants find out that I once lived the life that they are living now, they start listening. This is where the magic starts. 

Renée smiling with a participant

While working as a MAT Care Manager, one of the most memorable participant success stories I’ve witnessed is when one of our participants came in to Pathways’ Integrated Care Clinic. This particular day, she was in an amazing mood, and it showed. She was all smiles as she walked around informing everyone that she had been clean from opioids for over a month. She raved about how beneficial the Sublocade injection (injectable buprenorphine treatment) has been for her and was so happy that she could get it from Pathways, instead of having to go somewhere else. She called Pathways her “one stop shop.” After talking with this participant, I learned that she had reconnected with her children and loves her new life, without the use of any opioids. Before leaving the clinic, she turned to me and said, “Now if I could only stop using crack, everything would be great!” I stopped her from leaving, gave her the biggest hug, and encouraged her to relish in her victory! She stopped using opioids and she is not at risk for an overdose. She is also not working tirelessly, every day on the streets, trying to get well. I let her know that her recovery is hers alone and she can tailor it to fit her life, her goals, and her aspirations. She thanked me for “seeing her” and understanding the struggle.

 I... gave her the biggest hug, and encouraged her to relish in her victory! She stopped using opioids and she is not at risk for an overdose. She is also not working tirelessly, every day on the streets, trying to get well...

This success story is one out of many I’ve seen throughout my career! I believe the strategic placement of COE programs has been beneficial to the decreased number of overdoses happening here in Philadelphia. I also believe that peer support is an integral component of the Center of Excellence and its positive outcomes. I think the number of lives being saved can be attributed to the incredible, unique work of Certified Peer Specialists.

To learn more about Pathways’ Center of Excellence and the importance of peers in this work, check out Housing First University's free webinar on November 14th— HomePath: Recovering Together.


Renée Frink-Boyd, CPS (she/her), is a Training Specialist with Pathways to Housing PA’s training and educational initiative, Housing First University. Renee first came to Pathways in 2015 and served as a Certified Peer Specialist (CPS) on a non-fidelity Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) team, where she focused on building meaningful connections with program participants with chronic health conditions. Later, she joined the Pathways’ Center of Excellence as a Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT) Care Manager, where she assisted individuals with accessing MAT and MOUD services. Renee received her Peer Specialist certification in 2013. Her 10+ years of experience in the field includes working as an Employee Specialist at the Philadelphia Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual Disabilities, and as a CPS at Philadelphia area agencies including Horizon House and JFK Behavioral Health. Renee is passionate about building supportive peer relationships with individuals experiencing homelessness and managing co-occurring disorders.