As a Peer Specialist at Vinfen, Greg Ronco prides himself in being a resource for the people he serves. According to Greg, the road to becoming such a resource is rooted in creating a connection based on trust and empathy.
“The most important quality is being able to use my personal experience to its best degree,” Greg said. “And what I mean by that is having it on the back burner, but being able to completely understand where they’re at. Understanding and empathy is the thing that needs to be there the most.”
And as someone first diagnosed at the age of fourteen, Greg has a great deal of experience to draw on. After accepting a scholarship to attend a private high school in Needham, Greg found himself overwhelmed with anxiety, fear, and depression.
“I was terrified to go to school, so I avoided it. And it turned into a hospitalization, then turned into a diagnosis,” Greg explained. He spent another two years in public school before a second hospitalization; after which, Greg found himself enrolled in a clinical school in Beverly that specialized in serving and educating teenagers with diagnoses.
This, to Greg, was his unofficial induction into the world of peer supports. And while he didn’t learn the term “peer” until just before he joined Vinfen in 2014, Greg now finds himself drawing on the sense of acceptance he felt when he entered clinical school as he provides guidance to those he serves in learning to manage and accept their psychiatric conditions.
The supports Greg found at his clinical school had an invaluable impact on his life. This is why Greg encourages his clients to accept themselves, and seek out supports that provide both acceptance and understanding.
“That doesn’t just mean natural supports like friends,” Greg explained. “It also means surrounding yourself with providers who get it and understand you. Being able to appreciate yourself, not put on a façade, and be in an environment that feels comfortable.”
For this reason, one of Greg’s fondest memories at Vinfen was assisting a person to find housing on the North Shore. Though homeless, the person was determined to find the right fit and environment for him.
“That really hit home with me. So I said, yeah, I’ll drive you up to the North Shore. I’ll drive you up to the South Shore! Heck, I’ll drive you up to Connecticut. We’re going to find you the right place.”
But aside from the connections Greg forges with those he serves, which he considers the most gratifying part of his job, he’s also greatly enjoyed the opportunities he’s had through Vinfen to advocate on a higher level. Greg routinely provides training and advice to his team members from the perspective of a peer. He also partnered with his team members in Cambridge/Somerville to create a workshop for the Massachusetts Psychiatric Rehabilitation Commission (MassPRA) conference last year, and following his success, joined the MassPRA Advocacy Committee to help plan the conference that took place in April.
Greg sees the advocacy work he does through MassPRA and Vinfen as an essential component to serving those with psychiatric conditions.
“If we’re going to get friends, and school systems, and legal systems, and senators to do something helpful for people, then we need to have more conversations with the general public. That means having providers who are well educated, and on the cutting edge of the right and best way to do things,” Greg said. “That’s part of what the advocacy committee does. We encourage other agencies and the state to recognize new ideas and research and push for new things.”
With opportunities available to make an impact on an individual level as well as a structural one, Greg wouldn’t trade his job for any other on his team. And while he encourages anyone with lived experience and a genuine interest to become a Peer Specialist, Greg also acknowledges the challenges of the position.
“You have to share yourself.”Greg said. “Peers have a natural leg up when it comes to empathy and understanding because we’ve experienced it, but the danger of empathy is getting caught up in someone else’s experience.”
Still, for the chance to make lasting change, Greg believes the challenges are well worth the reward.
“The best thing is when I really have the opportunity to connect with people, when we can go deeper than coping skills and motivational enhancement. Those are wonderful moments.”