Mari-Lynn has always loved to connect with people. After reluctantly leaving her teaching career because of her multiple sclerosis diagnosis, Mari-Lynn looked for other places to belong. Over the last 18 years, she’s volunteered with several organizations in various roles, searching for the right fit.
“I wanted to do something different. I was looking for a volunteer position that was flexible, and that I could do from home since I don’t drive anymore.”
Through a friend, she was introduced to the 1:1 Peer Support Program.
“I have been in the program for almost two years now. I have great relationships with all of my peers – we are truly like friends. Even the two matches that have officially come to an end, I am still in contact with on a friendship basis.”
The program matches a peer – someone seeking the support of another individual with MS who has been in their shoes – with a volunteer, someone who can provide a non-judgmental, understanding, and empathetic listening ear. The pair connects through whichever method(s) they prefer, and discussion topics are open to whatever they are both comfortable with. Volunteers often find themselves sharing their first-hand experiences with symptom management, or sharing programs, tools, and resources that worked for them.
While the benefits are clear for the person receiving support, Mari-Lynn also finds personal benefits from conversations with her peers. “As humans, we are better together rather than separate, and we can always learn things from one another. I learn about things from my peers all the time!”
Behind each match is a mindful matchmaker
Jessica Faulds coordinates the 1:1 Peer Support Program for the MS Society, connecting people from across the country. A volunteer in B.C. may have an email connection with a person in Nova Scotia. A person seeking support in Alberta may talk on the phone regularly with a volunteer in Quebec. They can choose how they want to communicate – by phone, email, video calling, or other ways that work for both people – and Jessica facilitates and monitors the match for up to six months.
“Some people make a friend through this program, a fellow fighter in the MS community, and choose to keep in touch longer,” Jessica says. “Some find that a short-term connection is helpful for adapting to a specific MS-related challenge. The program is flexible, individualized and confidential, and volunteers are trained and provided with resources to assist them in their role.”
Running for nearly four years now, the program helps reduce isolation for people with MS and caregivers, as well as offers tips, tricks, and tools to use to adapt to life with MS including mental and emotional coping strategies, and physical modifications and lifestyle adaptations.
“Volunteers tell me how rewarding it is to give back to the MS community in this way. When I have the initial conversation with them, they often talk about how they want to be the person they needed when they were younger, when they were at an earlier point in their MS journey. They want to offer hope to someone who’s also dealing with MS as a big part of their life, and help reassure them that they can still live their best life with MS.”
A comforting connection
Five months into her diagnosis and halfway through her match with a volunteer, Tina reflects on how her peer support connection has changed the game.
“From the moment we connected, I felt at ease about everything. It’s funny how speaking to another individual who has the same diagnosis as you can help, even when you’re just bouncing thoughts and ideas off each other. We both have different symptoms yet can connect with everyday MS encounters.”
Tina found out about the program during her research on MS, right after receiving her diagnosis.
“I was feeling quite low at the time of my diagnosis. I don’t think I had ever been so scared in my life. All I could think about was the future and what would that look like for me. I came across the program and applied for it, not really knowing exactly what I would get out of it. I was really hoping that by speaking to someone who has MS I would gain their wisdom and insight to the disease and be able to relate to a lifestyle similar to mine.
“I remember thinking, wow, if this support program ended today, I could walk away from it knowing I gained a different perspective on my diagnosis. My peer truly lifted my spirits and the best part of it was that the conversations continued.”
The matchmaking process prioritizes similarities in life stage, diagnosis, and interests when making matches, so peers have the opportunity to connect with someone who truly has been in their shoes. Peers and volunteers are asked to fill out an extensive profile to ensure that all aspects of personality, preferences, and challenges are taken into consideration to make a good match.
“I feel a sense of relief every time I know that another person doesn’t have to face MS alone, that they have someone they can talk to who understands,” Jessica says. “I am only the person facilitating these connections, but the volunteers are out there providing support to people across the country; these are the people doing the real work. As someone who lives with MS, I understand a lot of the challenges that are a daily reality of life with MS. I am humbled and thankful to have this part to play in helping build connections within the Canada-wide MS community.”
Sometimes, even when you’re surrounded by people who love you and have known you for a long time, it’s hard to find someone who really knows what you’re going through. Oftentimes, you may not realize it but you have the power to help someone in a tough spot. The 1:1 Peer Support Program brings together people with MS who want a connection with someone like them – to share the experiences that they know all too well.
The 1:1 Peer Support Program is currently offered for individuals living with MS, and caregivers of individuals with MS (informal or formal). It is also offered in English and French across the country. Volunteers are currently high in demand, we hope you would consider becoming a volunteer with us!