All Network Conversation highlights unique challenges and opportunities for Cafés through the pandemic

As we approach the beginning of our third year in the pandemic, the Recovery Café Network hosted an All Network Conversation: Surviving and Thriving in a Pandemic, on Feb. 16, to highlight what different Cafés have learned in the COVID-19 era, the challenges we share, and the opportunities ahead of us. 

The panel included Café leaders Tiffany Turner and Leonard Mayo, from Recovery Café Seattle;  Stephanie Mendenhall from Reclaiming Lives/Recovery Café Medford; Becky Milanski, from Recovery Café Longmont; and Aaron Guldenschuh-Gatten from Recovery Café Lexington

Here’s a highlight of what these Café leaders had to say. 

How has your Café evolved and supported a thriving membership through the pandemic?

Stephanie Mendenhall, Recovery Café Medford: “We started in 2019 so we weren’t even open a year when this all started,” Mendenhall shared. 

To respond, the RC Medford team initially moved all their meetings and services to Zoom, introduced regular one-on-ones, and kept services primarily online for about six months. But as the Café began opening its doors back to the public, the team worked to keep it safe by reevaluating even the layout of the furniture, getting rid of sectionals, and making sure furniture was properly spaced apart. And RC Medford was creative in reaching Members through different online platforms. 

“We did Facebook Lives, interviewing people about their clean time, and then we also hosted a podcast that was paid for by the Oregon Health Authority,” Mendenhall said. 

Mendenhall pointed to a texting service, called Textedly, as the best new tool to reach Members through daily texts. 

“We send out a text every day about what’s happening at the Café. And you would think ppl would be driven crazy by it but they love it.”

Becky Milanski, Recovery Café Longmont: “We were only open about 10 months before we had to close our doors,” Milanski said. 

In the initial stages of the pandemic, the team switched to online.

“The biggest challenge was our members do not have reliable internet or phone service. Our virtual circles started off pretty strong but waned as time went on, so to help with that we did phone calls,” Milanski said. 

The team also rethought their food and sanitizing practices, having staff lead on cleaning bathrooms and changing how food was served.

“We used to have a buffet lunch but we started plating in the kitchen,” Milanski said. 

While membership took a hit, numbers are getting back to normal, she said.

Leonard Mayo, Recovery Café Seattle, SODO: Certain staff, volunteers, and Members were issued cell phones. 

“A lot of our members were in isolation so that connection was important,” Mayo said.”Not only could we call them but they could call us.” 

RC Seattle also connected with FEMA and SAMHSA and participated in a program called, Washington Listens. 

“We really had to reimagine what we could do, especially when our Cafés were both closed down,” Mayo said. “Part of our mission is in-person service so we didn’t want to lose that connection by not having a gathering place.” 

Aaron Guldenschuh-Gatten, Recovery Café Lexington: “The Café started operating in 2020 and had a small staff and then we got some big funding from the state opioid response offer and that kinda obvs injected some cash and programming into Recovery Café Lexington,” Guldenschuh-Gatten said. “The Café was born into the pandemic so from the very get-go we were doing things like art therapy outside, socially distanced.”

The team also thought through how to offer support through teleconnection. 

“The room where I am with all this colorful foam behind me served as a telemedicine room so recovery coaches can make contact with members,” he said. 

Guldenschuh-Gatten shared that they had to be creative and intentional about public health education, working with the Lexington Health Department to provide vaccines, and a health consultant to provide education on the efficacy and safety of wearing masks. 

Tiffany Turner, Recovery Café Seattle, SLU: On top of introducing Resource Connection Day, an event that brings service/resource providers to the Café so Members have access to resources in one place, Turner said it was essential to have a staff trained on emotional support.

“Everyone on staff was prepared to talk,” Turner said. “A lot of times the members come back and haven’t seen us in a while and they just want to fellowship. They just want to feel love and get a lot of things off their chest.”

The South Lake Union RC Seattle team also launched to-go lunches. Through these different programs, SLU gained Members and Turner said they plan to continue hosting Resource Connection Days.

“We’re going to keep doing it because it provides so much support in the moment,” she said. 

What were challenges your Café faced under pandemic conditions, and how has that impacted membership outreach, engagement and retention?

AGG: “With the isolation that the shutdowns caused, a lot of our members experienced return to use. It’s been a challenge supporting and sharing the intention to be in the space without drugs or alcohol for 24 hours. So we have really worked at reinforcing that culture that we think is important.”

LM: “Helping our members understand getting over the fear of going out in public…considering the virus is still here” 

SM: “We have a lot of people who don’t think they’re ever going to get sick,” Mendenhall shared, noting that they bring in health experts to provide education on why it’s essential to take safety precautions against the coronavirus.

But, the “most significant challenge right now is access to treatment,” Mendenhall said, pointing out that there are only 13 treatment beds available presently in the county their Café is located. 

BM: Milanski said access to treatment beds was a shared challenge at RC Longmont. 

“When people want to go into treatment you have a very small window and then you can’t find anything,” she said. 

Additionally they lost older volunteers, but have grown their youth volunteers.

TT: “The thing that comes to my heart about what’s been hit harder is, because I’ve been seeing it a lot lately, is relapse in our members,” Turner said. “And also the Members who have passed away because they couldn’t survive through COVID.”

What is one piece of advice you would give to a Café that is opening during the pandemic?

LM: “Think outside the box when you’re trying to think of ways to get your members engaged.” 

TT: “Take care of your staff because this thing affects everybody.”

BM: “Don’t be discouraged.” 

AGG: “Visibility matters so we have outdoor events where we have a DJ,” Guldenschuh-Gatten said. “We’re building communities so whatever ways we can build connections.” 

SM: Create a “Good Things list” to reflect on accomplishments and the good things your team is doing.