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Winners’ Circle Virtual Peer Support Group: Tackling Life’s Struggles

(Chicago) – It's been a year since the Winners' Circle peer support group has gone virtual due to the pandemic, and based on its success, it will stay long after the pandemic is over. 

Winners’ Circle is a peer-led support group created to address the unique needs of people who are working on confronting life struggles, including substance use disorders and criminal justice involvement. The group offers safe, positive, non-judgmental, relaxed spaces for participants to develop healthy lifestyles, learn and practice life and community skills, and share support, encouragement, and success with others at similar places in their lives.

Prior to COVID-19, Winners’ Circles met in communities across the state, and the twin group, Inner Circles, met inside about 15 prisons in Illinois. When the pandemic put a halt to in-person meetings, TASC initiated online Winners’ Circle events in April 2020. A Facebook group, titled Winners Circle - Peers Facing Life Struggles, has evolved over the last 12 months and now connects over 300 members. In addition to peer support, the group also offers updates of happenings in the community, including job leads, helpful resources, and events.

A peer-led Winners’ Circle also meets every Saturday via Zoom, welcoming people who are committed to facing life struggles and past criminal justice system involvement, with family and friends invited. 

What a Winners’ Circle does is “give that individual the opportunity to come and talk about whatever they want to talk about,” explained Toy Beasley, statewide reentry support coordinator for TASC. In a video overview of the Winners’ Circle for the McLean County (IL) Recovery Oriented Systems of Care (ROSC), he noted that Winners’ Circle provides a safe space to talk about issues that may be uncomfortable when raised in other settings. “Some of these individuals may be getting out of prison, getting out of the county jail, and they may be dealing with some untreated trauma. They may be dealing with conversations that normally don’t go on in an AA [Alcoholics Anonymous] or NA [Narcotics Anonymous] meeting.” 

Every other Thursday, Beasley hosts a Facebook Live Q&A where he invites guest speakers. The speakers bring inspiration and hope along with community resources for members, and discuss topics ranging from the pandemic to isolation to employment.

Beasley indicated that the biggest barrier to online meetings is Wi-Fi and smartphone access. Prior to COVID, TASC case managers could physically help newly released clients get signed up for assistance such as Medicaid, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and the Free Phone Lifeline Program. Currently, support is provided via a hybrid of in-person and virtual services, to help connect individuals to all available resources.

“Winners’ Circle peer support is unique because it’s more than assistance with recovery from drugs and alcohol; it’s also helping with behaviors and addressing life’s traumas,” said Beasley. 

“This is my passion,” he added. “I know how important it is to create a safe place for people when they get out of jail or prison.”

To learn more about Winners’ Circle Facebook group, the Saturday support group, or training opportunities for Circle leaders and community partners who want to establish other online Winners’ Circle meetings, please contact Toy Beasley via email.

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