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Sisters Empowering Sisters: A Sanctuary
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Sisters Empowering Sisters is a peer specialist-run program in Washington, DC that offers women in recovery from co-occurring disorders an opportunity to connect with other women who share the same struggles. Project Director Renee Robertson speaks about the powerful impact the sisters can have on each others’ lives when there is common understanding about moving away from loss, grief, and suffering, and towards hope and healing.
Sisters Empowering Sisters A Sanctuary

Renee Robertson’s story has a powerful impact on the work she does with women at Sisters Empowering Sisters, where she is Project Director and Peer Specialist. There, she is one woman sharing her life story with another woman and finding connection in loss, grief, and violence—and a common understanding that there are other paths to follow.

Renee describes Sisters Empowering Sisters as a true sisterhood. Once the women start sharing, they start to bond. They come to depend on each other for advice and guidance.

The program seems to dispel the myth, or perhaps in some places the reality, that women don’t get along. “I have heard a lot of women say over the years that they distrust [other] women,” says Renee, “but that has definitely been reversed here.”

Renee’s own story has been a difficult one. She endured repeated rape as a child and teen in a home filled with seven children and domestic violence. “I have huge tabloids of my life that are missing, leaving a large blank spot until the time when I was working and in my forties,” she says. “Eventually, your mind can’t take it anymore. I started dissociating.”

Later in life, as a way to deal with the mental health issues she struggled with, she started using crack cocaine and heroin. “But I never totally hit rock bottom until I tried to walk in front of a bus, and someone stopped me,” says Renee. After that, she went to a local organization called Community Connections to attend the Trauma Recovery and Empowerment Model (TREM) group, an intensive trauma program.

This began her road to recovery. Two years later, it was through this group that Renee became involved with Sisters Empowering Sisters.

Sisters Empowering Sisters receives funding from SAMHSA, which has provided her team of women with trainings on recovery language and peer support workshops. Since its inception, it has evolved into a peer specialist-run program, providing one-on-one peer supports for women with co-occurring disorders. “Mostly, we are focused on empowerment,” says Renee. “We help women find resources they need—resources that can advocate for women, anger management groups, life skills, relapse prevention, health and wellness, HIV prevention courses, and yoga.”

There are new course offerings every month to make sure that a wide variety of options are available. Some of the courses offer certificates that can increase women’s chances of securing housing. This is true of the ten-week certificate course in anger management and the recovery dual diagnosis course, for instance.

Anyone can contact a peer specialist for one-on-one support to talk through issues they may be experiencing. If a woman’s problem becomes more serious and requires clinical support, peer specialists are in a position to transfer her to the care she needs because of the trust they have built with the women. And there is no time limit to the support they offer; women are allowed to come to the center for as long as they want.

“The sisters here are all in recovery from co-occurring disorders, and most of us have suffered some kind of trauma as well,” she says. “We are all taking some kind of medication and still going through something difficult.” She explains that while it is important to talk to a case manager, women may not get the same sense of understanding if a case manager has not gone through any of these issues personally. It is that added element of peer support, Renee says, that has really worked for their program.

In the end, one of Renee’s colleagues, Rebecca Wolfson, says it best. She describes Sisters Empowering Sisters as “a beautiful, warm sanctuary, filled with positive energy.” And it is this sanctuary that helps women like Renee find their own road to recovery.

Sisters Empowering Sisters is the recipient of a Recovery Community Services Grant from SAMHSA’s Center for Substance Abuse Treatment.

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