The power of empathy: Peer groups help veterans, police and moms of kids with special need

Source: MaryLynn Schiavi For NJ Press Media

What do police officers, military veterans and mothers have in common?

They all fall into the category of those who help and support others — but often, do not get the help and support that they need, according to Cherie Castellano, the driving force behind the creation of three Central Jersey-based peer-to-peer support programs.

The programs, offered by the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, are proving that empathy, which arises from walking in the shoes of another, creates a powerful connection and support for those in crisis.

That, in turn, helps both parties heal.

Castellano is a crisis intervention professional and program manager at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey’s Behavioral HealthCare division in Piscataway.

She is the director of Cop2Cop, which she established over a decade ago prior to the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001; NJ Vet2Vet, established in 2005; and Mom2Mom, established in late 2010, which offers support and guidance to mothers of children with special needs.

All three programs, also known as “reciprocal peer support,” offer help through face-to-face support groups and round-the-clock telephone assistance.

“Those who have been through an experience have an opportunity to be a gateway of hope for someone else who is going through the same or similar experience,” Castellano said.

Making connections

“I think when you are speaking with someone who has an academic background in psychology, it can be very helpful, but when you are connecting with someone who has experienced the same situations and issues that you are going through, it is just very meaningful and there is an instant and easy understanding,” Nakeishia Knox of Newark, a peer support counselor who focuses on outreach with the Mom2Mom program, said.

Knox said that the idea of mothers of children with special needs supporting other mothers who are struggling with the same issues, concerns and pressures offers a satisfying experience for those who want to use what they have been through to help others.

“There is a great comfort in hearing other mothers telling their stories. It creates an extraordinary sharing through which both the moms that are sharing and the moms who are listening — benefit,” said Knox, who is the mother of an autistic child.

“When you are grappling with questions like, ‘Why did this happen to me’ or ‘Why did this happen to my child?’ there is nothing quite like hearing what other mothers have to say about how that feels,” Knox added.

Castellano said the peer-support programs have received attention by professionals in her field.

Medicaid is now recognizing the efficacy of peer-to-peer support.

Following Sept. 11, Castellano was assigned to coordinate support for 1,900 first responders in New York and New Jersey.

She also led service responses for the New Jersey Task Force One, Port Authority Police Department, NYPD and 10 New Jersey Police Departments.

She pioneered the 9/11 Rescuer Reentry Program for the Port Authority Police Department.

She has received the New Jersey Governors Excellence Award, N.J. Attorney General Recognition Award, as well as the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation World Congress Award for Outstanding Response in a Mass Disaster.

Castellano, the wife of a police officer, said there is extraordinary power in the connection that takes place between people who have walked in similar shoes, and especially those who are responsible for the care of others.

“I like to say that we are caring for people who care for people,” Castellano said. “When you get an opportunity to reflect on what you have been through and use that experience, you are able to help someone else in a very unique way. It is about being present with someone, not judging, just showing pure kindness.”

From the heart
Richard Dvorin of East Brunswick, a retired police officer, first became a peer counselor offering assistance on the phone in the Cop2Cop program in 2005.

His son, Seth, 24, a soldier, was killed when a roadside bomb exploded near Iskandariyah, Iraq, on Feb. 3, 2004.

The elder Dvorin, who also served as an air police officer in the Air Force, was asked to work as a counselor in the New Jersey Vet2Vet program in 2006.

Dvorin said that there was one veteran whom he will never forget.

The veteran talked about missing his dead child.

The caller was talking in a way that led him to believe that he might take his own life in order to be with his deceased child, Dvorin said.

“At that point I told him about how I lost my son in Iraq, and the things I do to keep him alive every day,” Dvorin said tearfully.

Dvorin said he sensed a profound change in the attitude of the veteran who was struggling with profound grief.

“Being able to help a fellow veteran has helped me enormously,” Dvorin said. “At the time I felt as though my son was looking over my shoulder telling me I did a good job. If veterans do not take care of other veterans, then who will do it?”

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