The odds were stacked against Antonio Lambert from the start. As a child in Portsmouth, Virginia, he was sexually and emotionally abused. Neglected by his family, he grew into a street-toughened gang member with a driving need for drugs.

By the time he was 17, Antonio had been shot nine times and sentenced to 22 years in prison, where a doctor diagnosed him with depression. After 16 years of incarceration, he emerged feeling lost, hopeless, and desperate to find drugs. He found them—but the high never lasted long enough.

A New York Times portrait of Antonio Lambert
A New York Times portrait of Antonio Lambert

Something had to change or else he’d end up dead or back in prison.

That’s when the call came. His mother had seen a TV ad for Teen Challenge USA, a Christian-based recovery program, and she gave him the phone number. Antonio dialed the number and decided to jump in with both feet; he moved to Greensboro, where Teen Challenge USA had a program. After he completed it, a friend showed him an ad for peer support specialists at a local mental health agency, Envisions of Life. Antonio grabbed the opportunity, even though it paid less than he was making as a warehouse manager. Being a peer support specialist felt like the right fit.

The odds were changing in his favor.

In 2007, Antonio attended a training talk by Steve Harrington, chief executive and founder of the International Association of Peer Specialists. Steve saw something special in Antonio and signed him up as a keynote speaker at an event in Michigan.

“I didn’t even know what ‘keynote’ meant,” Antonio later recalled. “I thought I might have to sing.”

Antonio during a recent interview
Antonio during a recent interview

For the people who attended the event, there was music in his words. They drank up the hope in his story and pulled him aside to ask for help with their loved ones. Along with being a peer support specialist and trainer, he was now a public speaker. His reach increased in December 2011, when the New York Times profiled him as part of its Lives Restored series. (Click here to read the article.)

Nowadays Antonio lives in Delaware. He travels the country, training peer specialists, telling his recovery story, speaking at conferences, and doing consulting work. He and Steve Harrington have formed Recover Resources, a company that sells peer support manuals, DVDs, and other educational materials.

We asked Antonio to answer a few questions via e-mail, and he readily agreed, sending his answers from the iPad he carries on his many travels.

Do you ever get back to Greensboro? Yes, I do get back to visit often. I work for an accreditation body by the name of CQL (the Council on Quality and Leadership); we accredit over 200 companies in North Carolina. I also do consulting work for Chris’s Rehabilitation Services in Greensboro. I visit with family and friends when I’m in town—and I go fishing with my best friend, Mr. Harry Lucas.

Any chance you’d be willing to come speak at the Mental Health Association in Greensboro?  I trained a few people in peer support at MHAG. It would an honor to speak there.

What have you been up to in the past year? I’ve been doing curriculum development and pilot tests for a SAMHSA grant through the International Association of Peer Specialists. I just completed a pilot training at an organization called Community Access, which is the mother company for Howie the Harp Advocacy Center.

How did the New York Times profile of you in December 2011 impact you?  The publicity scared me at first because it was so hard to believe. But, as everything began to fall into place, I saw that the story was getting a lot of people to see what peer support can do, and to understand that people are really hurting and searching for healing help. It also educated a lot of people about forensic peer support. It opened all kinds of doors for me—it also opened the doors for countless peer specialists all over the world!

How many peer specialists do you estimate you’ve trained this year? Coming up on 60.

What do you enjoy most about training peer specialists? Watching students who feel like they can’t do it, and then they get that moment of breakthrough and bloom right before my eyes! I feel like a father watching his child take his or her first steps.

What advice would you offer a beginning peer support specialist? Be careful not to forget your own recovery while assisting others with theirs.

What’s the most rewarding thing about the work you do? Watching people take their independence back and walking with it!

What’s the greatest challenge you face in your life? Remembering to stay ready for this monster called addiction that’s waiting to kill me any chance it gets.

What has been the single most important element in your recovery? Spirituality.