Community Health Worker Brian Thompson (center) with Camden Coalition program graduate Charlie Vazquez (left) and Consulting Attorney Jeremy Spiegel (right) at the Putting Care at the Center 2018 conference.

By Brian Thompson

More and more, organizations are talking about why and how to listen to people with “lived experience” of the issues that their organizations are trying to address. At the Camden Coalition, we know that people who have complex needs have a deep understanding of their own goals and challenges. I’m a community health worker here, and I know that people with lived experience need to be listened to. When I started this job, I didn’t know much about healthcare, but I did know a lot about what it’s like to live with a substance use disorder and social needs because I experienced those myself.

I experienced trauma as a child, and I didn’t know how much of an impact it would have on me until much later. Like many kids, I experimented with alcohol and drugs. At first, I tried things so I could fit in. But I later realized that I was doing it to escape from what I’d been through. Over time, I started using and selling drugs. I was rough around the edges, but somehow managed to graduate from high school.

Over the next decade, I had calm periods. I got married, had a daughter, and worked a full-time job. But the pull of drugs remained, especially as traumatic things happened, including violence, going to prison, and losing stable housing. I dipped in and out of sobriety. I tried, a lot, to manage my addiction. Staying sober is hard if you’re not really ready for it, and I wasn’t ready.

The turning point for me was when I finally realized I would lose custody of my son. He was separated from my girlfriend and me at birth. My girlfriend spent the next year getting sober and stable so she could have him back, but I didn’t. It wasn’t until the clock was really ticking that I proved to myself that I was able to take recovery seriously.

Many people have helped me throughout my life, and two people stand out as especially important during this time. First was my boss at the car wash where I worked for a few years. He gave me a job when others wouldn’t hire me because of my record. Eventually, he had to let me go because I was using drugs, but he told me I could come back to work when I was sober. He kept his word. When I was ready to work again, he hired me back. I was able to get an apartment with my income from the car wash, which was essential for getting custody of my son again.

Second was my caseworker at the Department of Child Protection and Permanency. She made sure I knew all the steps I needed to take, and helped me feel like I could achieve my goals. She walked alongside my family as we came back together. And after we were reunified with our son on August 28, 2016, my caseworker told me about this job as a community health worker at the Camden Coalition. She saw the hard work I had put into changing my life and thought I could be of service to others.

I learned that my life was worth something, but I just didn’t know what. I knew I wanted to have a positive impact on people. I wanted to show them the same kindness that I received from my old boss and caseworker. The idea of working in healthcare made me nervous, and I was worried about failing my clients. But I had seen and experienced pain firsthand and I wanted to find a way to do something about it. I had a lot to learn, but I also had a lot to give.

Working as a community health worker allows me to use my life experiences to help others. My history is very similar to the current situation of the people I serve. I can be a source of positivity and show others what is possible, that they can accomplish their goals and that their lives can be meaningful in whatever way they choose. I’m grateful for the people who extended this same kindness to me when I needed it. And I’m honored to be able to do the same for others.

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