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Amistad (originally known as the Amity Center) was founded in 1982 by families of loved ones who recognized that what their loved ones really needed was a safe place where they could spend some of their free time, and where they would be treated with respect and dignity.
In 1994 the program moved to its current location on State Street. The building was acquired and rehabbed at a time of inflated real estate values, resulting in very high occupancy costs. The Amity Center went through a very difficult period, and at one point was threatened with possible permanent closure. Some of the staff were vindictive and mean, and chaos ruled. The program was taken over by Catholic Charities of Maine for a year to allow Amity, now Amistad, to get back on its feet with a consumer Board of Directors.
In 1996, Amistad formally became a non-profit corporation, elected its own board of directors, and contracted directly with the State to operate the peer center. Rick Russell was the chair of the Board, and Candee Kaknes was the director guiding the organization through this transition period. In July of 1996, the Board formally hired its first executive director, Peter Driscoll.
At the time the program operated on both floors of the building at 66 State Street. There was a staff of 5 full time activity coordinators working in the peer center, which served about 65 members a day. We were open 7 days a week from 9:00 AM to 9:00 PM. We had an operating budget of about $365,000.
Amistad is the largest of the 15 or so Peer Centers operating in the State. Most are operated by larger provider organizations. Amistad was instrumental in assisting with the development of what has become the Maine Association of Peer Support and Recovery Centers (MAPSRC).
Steadily increasing operating costs and level funding from the State have caused shrinkage in the staff, hours of operation and space – even as the attendance has continued to grow. Even though we now have a much smaller staff, we are visited by an average of 150 members daily and have a much greater variety of activities.
In 2001, we became a member agency of the United Way. In 2003 we were chosen by the United Way and Channel 6 as their “Agency of Distinction”.
In late 2002, we received funding from the Maine Health Access Foundation (MeHAF) to create a peer support program in the emergency room at Maine Medical Center. The program operates 7 nights a week, and is now funded completely by DHHS.
In 2004, we received another grant from MeHAF to create the Portland Warm Line – a non-crisis telephone support line staffed and managed by peers. This program was also eventually funded by DHHS after a competitive bid, and grew rapidly. The local Warm Line eventually became a state wide warm line operating 7 nights a week from 5 PM to 8 AM handling more than 2,000 calls a month. Sadly this contract was put out to bid after only three years of successful operation in 2009, and the contract awarded to Sweetser. Since this contract represented nearly one third of the total Amistad budget, its loss was deeply felt throughout the agency.
In 2004, we were invited to initiate a peer support program inside the Augusta Mental Health Institute – one of the most aggressive peer programs of any State Mental Hospital in the country. We currently have a staff of 7 full time and 4 part time peers working successfully in the hospital.
We celebrated our 25th year of operation in 2007.
It was in this year that we first came across the research that concluded that individuals with severe and persistent mental illness died on average 25 years younger than the average population. The information was so powerful we felt compelled to figure out how we needed to change our work to deal with the poor health outcomes for our members. The result became the Healthy Amistad initiative. Funded by the Maine Health Access Foundation, this three year project provided resources that encouraged us to impact the health culture of Amistad – by eating better, emphasizing healthy activity and encouraging members to take better care of their health. It also allowed us to hire a peer patient navigator – who was given the charge to get people connected to the health care system, whatever it took.
In 2011, the DHHS began a campaign to re-design crisis services across the state. One of the goals was to divert individuals from emergency rooms who were using that service far too frequently. In response to this initiative, Amistad began to research creative solutions to this issue – and the result was our newest initiative which we have called the Peer Coaching Initiative. Funded completely with private funding, the program works with individuals identified by the hospital as frequent visitors to the ED. The coach has received training in motivational interviewing, life coaching and peer support. He is available to meet by phone or in comfortable locations within the community with the identified frequent users with a goal of reducing their use of the psych ED. The program has been independently evaluated, and has shown to have dramatic success in reducing ED use and increasing the quality of lives of the participants.
Considering that the program works with clients considered some of the most challenging in the system, these outcomes are particularly impressive.
In 2012 we were invited to join a collaborative effort with Spring Harbor Hospital and Community Counseling to create a project intended to reduce return visits to the hospital by a defined population. The grant provided for the hiring of a full time peer, who works with identified patients, connects them with community resources, and provides support to them in the community once they are discharged from the hospital.
In 2012, we celebrated our 30th year of operation.
In 2013 we received a 3 year grant from SAMSHA to organize individuals working in peer support across the State. It is a newly developing work force both nationally and here in Maine, and there is great interest in insuring that it is peers who are overseeing the development of peer services to insure that they are consistent with peer values.
Amistad has a staff of more than 30 individuals working full and part time, and the great majority of them identify as peers. The budget for Amistad is approximately one million dollars, and a substantial portion of that is raised privately. We are recognized in Maine as a pioneer in developing programs that are designed, managed and supervised by peers.
For most of our history our members have elected the Board of Directors from within the Peer Center. The expansion and growth of the Agency, and need for additional financial support has recently led the Board to conclude that an expansion of the Board of Directors would be in the best interests of the Agency, and we are currently recruiting a more diverse Board of Directors – while maintaining a commitment of insisting that the Board will consist of at least 50% of individuals who either identify as a consumer, or as a family member of a consumer.
While we are proud of the growth of the organization, what is most meaningful is that we remain true to our mission statement, and to our core values of Recovery, Relationships and Respect