All of the experiences in Kevin Mahoney’s life that most people would see as setbacks, Kevin sees as an opportunity to help more people. He’s had open-heart surgery, skin cancer, and hypertension. When he recently found out he has diabetes, one of his first thoughts was, “I can use that to my advantage as a community health educator.”
As a certified peer support specialist (CPSS) at MAHEC, Kevin helps people struggling with mental health issues, psychological trauma, or a substance use disorder by drawing from his own life experiences with similar issues. You could say sharing his story is part of Kevin’s job.
Before moving to Asheville, Kevin was a personal translator for the Air Force for 20 years. “There’s a lot of inherent trauma and vicarious trauma working in combat and high pressure situations. When I came out of the military, I was really unfit for civilian life. I was homeless for five years. I was mentally ill and abused substances,” Kevin said.
The turning point for him was joining a Universal Unitarian Church. In the process of getting on his feet, Kevin started working in a soup kitchen at the church. There, he discovered that helping others was the solution to saving himself. “The light went on, and it never went off,” Kevin said.
When Kevin moved to Asheville in 2008, he was pretty solid in his recovery. When he wasn’t working in outdoor therapy at an therapeutic camp for kids, he was working with the unhoused population.
In 2016 he started his own nonprofit, Sunrise Community for Wellness Recovery, which is still going strong today. MAHEC reached out to him about consulting for peer support and then offered him a full-time position in 2018. Back then, Kevin was the first CPSS at MAHEC. Now there are seven on staff.
When Kevin first started at MAHEC, he wasn’t sure where he fit in. “I started hanging out in family medicine all the time asking, ‘What do you need?’” Kevin said. “I built this program from the ground up. I am recovery focused, but it doesn’t mean I’m stuck in that one lane, so I invented more lanes.”
Kevin is constantly researching new things about his field and discovering new ways to help people.
Last year, Kevin took a four-month course to get his community health worker (CHW) certification. He says CHWs are similar to CPSSs in a lot of ways, but each approach has tools that can benefit the other.
“CHWs are community health educators coming from within communities that might be disenfranchised,” Kevin explains. “CPSSs are people who are recovering from mental health or substance use or being incarcerated a number of other things, and they use their story to help others. You can keep the lanes separate, but sometimes they don’t have to be.”
In his work, Kevin enjoys using any approach necessary to get patients on the road to recovery, or as he would call it, the road to discovery. “I coined the term ‘discovery specialist’ instead of recovery specialist,” Kevin said. “It caught on because you help people discover their pathway.”