What better way to start a conference than to beat on a big drum? At the Association’s Second Annual Peer Conference, participants—almost 70 in all—indulged their creative sides, starting with a lesson in the power of drumming from Shannon Morrow and her co-facilitator, Rhea, of Drumming Up Hope.

Shannon (left) and Rhea from Drumming Up Hope
Rhea drums at the opening of the MHAG peer conference

The conference, “Express Yourself: Creative Approaches to Mental Health Recovery,” took place at the Interactive Resource Center (IRC) on September 22. The building provided a roomy setting for the DIY-style gathering, which included bright handmade tablecloths and a cornucopia of donated food. A small army of IRC and MHAG volunteers kept the ship running smoothly.

MHAG staff Thomas Norbutt and Brittany Holt (right) work with an IRC volunteer at the registration table
One of the hand-sewn tablecloths; each table contained potted flowers created by peers

Speaker Cherene Allen-Caraco, director of Mecklenburg’s PROMISE, spoke compellingly about advocacy for mental health recovery. She recounted her own journey from self-absorption and dwelling on her diagnoses to pushing for systems transformation.

Cherene Allen-Caraco talks about mental health advocacy
The crowd absorbs Cherene’s message

During breakout sessions, conference-goers had a choice of drumming, interpreting photographs, using music as a recovery tool, writing, and creating collages. The drumming session—held in the IRC’s warehouse—permeated the main conference room, while occasional trumpet bursts sounded from the music group.

The creative writing group hard at work

The final speaker, Kenya Howard, told her dramatic story of overcoming abuse, depression, and addiction. She recounted how, in the process, she began walking a deeply spiritual path and found her calling as a peer support specialist.

Kenya  tells her recovery story

And then, in the final moments of the conference, the drum-beating started again, this time accompanied by the collective sound of noisemakers: tiny maracas, bottles with seeds inside, handmade rhythm sticks. Every person at the conference had an instrument, and they all shook them in rhythm. The sound rose and fell like a heartbeat, unifying, connecting, strengthening, making  hope and joy palpable.

Percussion instruments provided by Drumming Up Hope