Rural Community Living Development Peer Mentoring: A Strategy for Sustainable Knowledge Translation

University of Montana
Research and Training Center on Disability in Rural Communities

Submitted by Rayna Sage, PhD


This project is implementing the Rural Community Living Development (RCLD) peer mentoring program to address the needs of people with disabilities in unserved and underserved rural communities. The project has used a participatory process to develop the RCLD peer mentoring curriculum, which prepares staff at Centers for Independent Living (CILs) to mentor and support other CIL staff to work on rural community living development activities. The mentoring program will connect CIL staff in rural service areas with experienced mentors who are trained to implement the curriculum. The goal of the project is to support CILs in conducting effective outreach and community organizing around rural issues such as housing, transportation, and healthcare.


The RCLD project is a knowledge translation (KT) project funded by the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research (NIDILRR). It is a partnership between the Association of Programs for Rural Independent Living (APRIL) and the Research and Training Center on Disability in Rural Communities (RTC:Rural). The RCLD project develops and disseminates a variety of products and strategies to support rural community development activities, including the RCLD peer mentoring curriculum. The project developed this curriculum using a participatory process with CILs, involving CILs in all stages of development to ensure the relevance and sustainability of the curriculum and the peer mentoring model.

KT Activities

The RCLD project is a KT project in that its main objective is to produce research-based resources for knowledge users, with input from knowledge users, to help them make an impact in their communities. In this case, knowledge users are CIL staff who use these resources to conduct outreach and organize with others in their rural communities, such as consumers and institutional leaders. The project used an iterative participatory process with CIL staff to develop relevant materials, in addition to cataloging and summarizing existing NIDILRR-funded products, with implications for rural community living development. The team is currently piloting the peer mentoring curriculum with six CIL staff, who may later serve as mentors to other CIL staff CIL staff in the pilot phase also provide feedback about project materials so that the project can continue to make these resources more useful for knowledge users. Consistent communication and strong working relationships between researchers and knowledge users are integral to all phases of the project, from initial curriculum development through evaluation.

Participatory curriculum development. The RCLD project used a participatory curriculum development (PCD) approach to design a curriculum on rural community living development. This approach involves regular communication with and input from the curriculum’s intended users throughout the development and evaluation process. RTC:Rural has used participatory research approaches in a variety of projects, including the Healthy Community Living (HCL) program, whose PCD approach is detailed in a previous KT Casebook entry. The process that was used to develop the current version of the HCL program was also used to develop the RCLD curriculum. For the RCLD project, seven CIL staff with rural service areas participated in the PCD process. These staff helped develop new materials relevant to their own experiences in rural community living development. The project team held frequent virtual meetings with knowledge users to brainstorm ideas and to collaboratively write and revise the curriculum. Together, they spent 3 to 4 weeks on each unit of the curriculum. Based on feedback from CIL staff piloting the program, the project team is currently working to make the curriculum more user friendly in an online format.

Promoting the uptake of NIDILRR-funded research. One of the goals of the project is to support the uptake of relevant NIDILRR-funded findings and products among rural users. The project team worked with the National Rehabilitation Information Center (NARIC) to catalog the NIDILRR products with potential for rural applications. Knowledge translation researchers at RTC:Rural then developed a set of criteria for scoring each product based on its relevance and feasibility for use. For example, researchers used the scoring criteria to assess whether a specific product needed to be adapted for use in rural areas and to determine the level of funding required to implement recommended strategies. Based on the scores, the project team selected three to five products for each functional need (such as housing, healthcare, and transportation) to be featured on the project website. Resources highlighted on the website include toolkits, information sheets, and strategies. By collecting and summarizing these resources, the project team aims to make it easier for knowledge users to access resources that are relevant to their outreach and organizing efforts in rural service areas.

Piloting a peer mentoring program. The RCLD project will train CIL staff to mentor other CIL staff by using the RCLD peer-to-peer mentoring curriculum. The curriculum and related materials serve as resources upon which mentors may draw on a case-by-case basis to address specific issues faced by their mentees. The project team is currently piloting the curriculum through a “peer collective” with six CIL staff from California, Georgia, Michigan (two CILs), South Carolina, and Virginia. As part of the peer collective, pilot users participate in group mentoring meetings twice a month to learn about rural community development approaches from the project team and from one another. They also provide feedback about the program, such as suggesting more user-friendly ways to present the curriculum. CIL staff participating in the pilot phase may serve as mentors in the future. The project team ultimately hopes to train about 27 mentors and move to a one-on-one mentoring model. One-on-one peer mentoring will enable mentees to receive personalized guidance from experienced peers, while the peer mentoring curriculum will give mentors a standard set of recommendations and resources to help inform their interactions with mentees.

Partnering with a trusted consumer organization. RTC:Rural is collaborating on the RCLD project with its longtime partner, the Association of Programs for Rural Independent Living (APRIL). APRIL is a nonprofit membership organization whose members include CILs, their satellites and branch offices, statewide independent living councils, and other organizations and individuals concerned with the independent living issues of people with disabilities living in rural America. APRIL’s relationships with rural CILs have enabled the project to involve CIL staff in the PCD and piloting phases described earlier. APRIL has also helped shape the project’s evaluation strategy and plan for sustainability. RTC:Rural and APRIL regularly communicate about how the peer mentoring program can evolve into a service managed by APRIL in the long term, after the 5 year project funding period. Close collaboration between researchers and a trusted consumer organization enables the project to situate itself within longer term streams of work to promote the usefulness and longevity of its products.

Evaluation strategies. As part of the evaluation of the peer mentoring program, the RCLD project team plans to collect qualitative data in the form of stories from CIL staff participating in the program. One of the project’s evaluation strategies will be the photovoice method, whereby participants take photographs that represent their experiences with rural outreach and organizing. Participants will then collaboratively decide which pictures best represent their experiences and will write captions in which they reflect on those experiences. In addition, researchers will use mind-mapping software to conduct community-specific ripple effect mapping. Through this strategy, the pilot peer group will collectively share their experiences with rural community outreach and organizing. During a group meeting, researchers will map the branching connections between community development strategies and impacts, demonstrating how outreach and organizing efforts have “rippled” through each community. The project intends to showcase stories collected from participants in the pilot phase at APRIL’s 2023 conference.

Lessons Learned

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the RCLD project implemented PCD in a virtual format. The project team originally had planned to collaborate with CIL staff in person but adapted their approach in response to CIL office closures and travel restrictions. The pandemic posed another challenge for the PCD process in that the CIL staff participating in curriculum development could not perform in-person outreach and organizing during the curriculum development process. The project team learned that it is harder for knowledge users to provide information on activities in which they are not engaged on a day-to-day basis. As a result, some aspects of the curriculum may be overly idealistic. The pilot phase of the curriculum is helping to test strategies for outreach and organizing now that more in-person activities are possible.

Through its work on multiple projects, RTC:Rural has found that engaging community members from rural areas in research and development activities has become more challenging in recent years, requiring innovative approaches to obtain buy-in and trust. The project’s participatory approach to curriculum development and piloting has enabled the project team to learn from the innovations of CIL staff working on outreach and organizing efforts in their own communities. CIL staff have emphasized in particular the importance of “meeting people where they are,” or entering a community with neither pre existing expectations nor an agenda before pursuing project goals. Getting to know a community well enough to develop these community-specific approaches requires significant time commitment, creativity, and adaptability.

Contact Information

NIDILRR Project Name: Rural Community Living Development Peer Mentoring: A Strategy for Knowledge Translation
Organization: The University of Montana Rural Institute: A Center for Excellence in Disability Research, Education, and Services
Physical Address: 35 Corbin Hall, Missoula, MT 59812
Key Contact: Rayna Sage, PhD,