Holly Dwyer: Leading by Example

As a mentor in the iPeer2Peer program, Dwyer helps her younger counterparts with arthritis envision a bright future.

By Emily Delzell

When Holly Dwyer first heard about the Arthritis Foundation’s iPeer2Peer program, she knew she wanted to be a part of it. Dwyer, who is now 23 and was diagnosed with juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA) at age seven, had been active in the arthritis community for years. She has participated in conferences and in her local JA Camp in Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin, and has traveled to Boston to share her experiences as a patient with an American College of Rheumatology panel writing new guidelines for JIA care.

 “Through all those experiences, one of the biggest things I’ve seen that really helps kids is to be able look at someone else with arthritis and feel, ‘You’re like me. I don’t have to explain anything to you because you just get it,’” says Dwyer, explaining the strong draw she felt to iPeer2Peer. The program pairs teen mentees with a young adult mentor like Dwyer, who wants to pass on the wisdom and skills they’ve learned to manage their arthritis.

 Like Dwyer and her 14-year-old mentee, program participants from different states, but with shared experiences, connect in video calls at least six times during the three-month mentoring period. Dwyer and her mentee talk once a week, sometimes for 30 minutes, sometimes for hours, she says.

Connection and Empowerment

Helping teens with arthritis move into their futures with confidence and strong coping tools are two of the most powerful benefits of the iPeer2Peer program, says Dwyer, who is one year into a three-year master’s degree program in clinical mental health counseling at Winona State University in Minnesota.  

 “The biggest things I’ve seen are the sense of empowerment and connection the program offers. Mentees have someone to share their struggles and fears with without feeling judged or ashamed. Mentors can draw on their experiences to explain that while you may have arthritis, it doesn’t have to have you. You have a choice in how you see it, and yourself,” she says.

 Arthritis often throws a “huge curveball” into teens’ vision of their future, she says. “Working with someone who has been through what you’re going through and has found ways to succeed helps kids understand they might have to take some extra steps to get there, but they don’t have to give up on their dreams.”

 Dwyer has been paired with her mentee for about six months. After the first three months came to end, she and her mentee decided neither was quite ready to move on.  

 “At first she was kind of timid about getting involved in the arthritis community, but now she’s looking at local arthritis camps and reaching out to some local groups. It has been really cool to see that change in her,” Dwyer says.

 Empathy in Action  

Dwyer’s ambition to help others both in the iPeer2Peer program and in the career as a counselor she’s preparing for grew out of her experiences growing up with JIA.

 “I would often get on that wheel of playing the what-if game what if my medication stops working, what if I flare and I can’t get to class,” she says. “I often had anxiety from that kind of thinking, and I wanted to find a way to reframe that anxiety and find some good from it.”

 That came along with the realization that many of people’s most difficult challenges are invisible to others. Leaning how to help people cope with difficult realities and find their way to a stronger place made counseling feel like a natural career fit.

 “As I met more people with arthritis and heard their stories, I realized many were really hiding the pain that comes along with having a significant chronic condition,” she says. “As a future mental health provider, I hope I can help walk people through these challenges and reframe them so they can come to a new identity as a strong individual who has arthritis or another problem. It’s a part of you, but it doesn’t have to be what defines you.”