by Michael Schut, Communications Manager
On a rainy evening about a decade ago, Stephanie Mendenhall left her office at the Jackson County Health and Human Services Department in a hurry. She needed to buy a gift before heading to a friend’s birthday party.
Getting out of her car outside a TJ Maxx, she walked by a young teenage boy laying on the sidewalk, crying, his bicycle next to him. On the way in to get a gift, she thought, “Somebody should help him.” On the way out, she thought, “Maybe I should help him.” But she ended up passing him by.
The experience haunted her for months.
She realized she felt she had no time, no “margin,” for anything other than her full-time job and her life as a wife and mother of two teenage boys. So she made a commitment to herself: to simply make room in her life to “be available to the people right in front of me.”
Her husband, Tony, joined her in that stance. Those who started showing up in front of them, in their hometown of Medford, Oregon, were young traumatized people using drugs to fill the void in their lives.
As they listened to and got to know these young people, Stephanie and Tony found that what they wanted most was community; they needed, as we all do, people who would be there for them. Against the advice of their friends and family, the Mendenhalls began extending invitations: come on over to our place to catch the game, or have a meal, or hang out.
And so these young folks, who started out as strangers, became part of a growing community based out of the Mendenhall’s home.
Word spread about Stephanie and Tony, about the people they were meeting and the community being built. In October of 2015 a friend texted Stephanie saying she had seen a young woman outside a Wendy’s who needed help.
The next day, Stephanie met that young woman, Patti Dunkin, for the first time. Stephanie offered Patti her phone number and would periodically help her out with food, or a ride.
Patti was 25, wrestling with an addiction to heroin. She writes, “When I take a moment to glance back at my life before I met the Mendenhalls, I see a terrified, hopeless, disconnected, and ashamed young woman who only wanted to be unchained from her paralyzing addiction.”
In talking with those who founded Recovery Café Medford, it’s clear that Stephanie has the ability to look past people’s circumstances to see them whole and value them for who they are. Stephanie herself says, “I love believing in people until they believe in themselves.” Stephanie saw Patti as a human being, full of gifts. She saw beyond her addiction.
Once Patti had gone through detox, she contacted the Mendenhalls. She needed a place to live. The Mendenhall family took the extraordinary step of inviting Patti, and her 90-pound pit bull Zeke, to live with them.
Doing so was not without its risks. After six months Patti did go back to using heroin so had to leave the home. But, after going through treatment again, she eventually moved back in and lived with the Mendenhalls for five years.
One of Patti’s gifts is her heart for people and her desire to help; through her, the Mendenhalls met over 60 people struggling with addictions.
And 60 folks don’t fit too well in a living room.
Exploring Recovery Café in Seattle
Tony and Stephanie hadn’t set out to start an organization. They had just decided to “invest in one girl who really needed help.”
As Tony puts it, their mission was to “connect with people, meet them where they’re at, and love them.” And the fact that folks found freedom from drugs and alcohol was “almost an afterthought.” But it’s what happened.
As the community grew, the Mendenhalls began dreaming about a for-profit coffee house. They even had a name chosen: “Zeke Zane’s Coffee Shop,” after Patti’s pit bull. The coffee shop would then fund one-on-one recovery services. But they eventually decided that establishing a nonprofit would allow them to serve more people, so Stephanie began writing a business plan for “Reclaiming Lives.”
A colleague from Stephanie’s time at Health and Human Services heard about their dreams. He had heard about a place in Seattle called the Recovery Café. Perhaps it might be a model for what the Mendenhalls were dreaming about in Medford?
So Stephanie reached out to David Uhl, Director of the Recovery Café Network at the time. Following that call the Medford group decided to travel to Seattle to explore the Recovery Café Model.
For one thing, their living room was getting a bit tight. For another, the Café sounded a lot like what they were already doing—building a community which met people where they were, loved them, and believed in them until they believed in themselves.
So, in January of 2018, the Mendenhalls, along with Patti, their eldest son Matthew, and Beau (a future board member) headed north to Seattle.
They returned to Medford ready to start a Café.
Bill Maentz, a colleague and friend of Stephanie’s who was taken by her passion for young people, and had joined the Mendenhalls early on in the planning and dreaming, was a bit skeptical. Not having joined that initial trip to Seattle, he wasn’t yet sold on the Recovery Café Model: “They all came back and I thought they were crazy. It’s not that cool. Then I went to Seattle on the second visit—and I said, okay, it’s that cool!”
Feeling the Love in the Space
The Seattle visits were pivotal for the Medford group.
Bill remembers thinking, “If we could duplicate a quarter of the amount of love and compassion the Seattle Café expresses to its Members we’d be successful.” Bill was also struck by the quality of the Café: real chairs, healthy food, a restful and beautiful space.
Stephanie recalls two stories Cofounder Killian Noe shared with them during their visit: a Member of the Café came to the door and asked to speak to someone. But she didn’t come in. She had had a recurrence of drug use and felt she needed to wait until the next day when she could support the recovery of others. On another day, a Café staffer saw another Member standing outside the Café, her hands on the building. When asked why she said she just wanted to “feel the love in this place.”
The Medford team knew they wanted to create that kind of loving space. They also knew they would need the right staff—and wished they could somehow steal Jason away from the Seattle Café. Jason was the Café’s manager who “had the ability to love everybody as well as demand the respect of the Members to make sure everybody had a safe space.” As Bill put it, “Boy, if we could hire Jason away from Seattle we’d be set!”
Medford needed a Jason—and soon after found him in Brandon Orr.
This Could Be Huge
Brandon had been in recovery from a heroin addiction for over two years when Beau, the board member who’d been to Seattle, introduced him to Stephanie.
Brandon went to an early meeting at the Mendenhall’s home. He recalls thinking, “This could be huge.” Huge, he felt, because the Recovery Café Model was open to all recovery pathways and because he could sense that Recovery Circles would become circles of trust. He saw how the weekly Recovery Circle, with their emphasis on being both known and loved, would provide much more than the usual groups those in addiction were often required to attend.
Four years after that initial meeting at the Mendenhall’s place, Brandon sees every day how people who wouldn’t talk to each other out on the streets, in their addiction, have become a community for one another. They’ve become for each other exactly what those young people on Medford’s streets told the Mendenhalls that they needed.
Now, when Members are asked what the Medford Café means to them, Stephanie says: “They all say, ‘It’s home, where my family is.’”
Feeling Like Home
One of those Members is Leila Carlson. Leila first heard about Recovery Café Medford four years ago, from prison. Following her release, and some time in a transitional home, she went by herself to the Café. She was nervous. But she remembers how “very friendly” the Café was—and she kept coming back. Soon the Café started to feel like home; a home she needed because most all her family members struggled with addiction.
At the time, Leila’s husband Hank Nevarez was still in prison. After his release in 2021 he joined the Café as well. Both have now been trained as recovery support specialists and facilitate weekly Recovery Circles. Leila in particular loves all the hugs she gets when she walks in the door. She says her husband isn’t a big hugger, but he gets them too.
Every Recovery Café has their own origin story. What’s common to most if not all of those is an authentic relationship that crosses perceived boundaries—a story not unlike the Mendenhall’s relationship with Patti. Or perhaps it’s the story of a missed relationship—as when Stephanie passed by the young boy crying in front of the TJ Maxx and resolved from then on to make herself available to those she met.
As Tony Mendenhall says, “I never knew someone with tattoos, or someone who struggled with addiction. Now those folks are part of my family.”
Or, take Bill’s description of Recovery Café Medford: “We have 70 people over for dinner. They eat together, tell each other about their lives. That big family reunion gets boiled down to the ten or so people in a Recovery Circle; that’s their recovery family.” Bill recalls the time when a woman was missing from her Circle. The members of her Recovery Circle, not Café staff, went out to the streets to find and welcome her back.
Recovery Café Network Cofounder Killian Noe says that, “Perhaps the deepest thing in me is a belief in the oneness of the human family.”
What started out as an invitation to Patti to join the Mendenhall family became 60 people in a living room, became Recovery Café Medford—which now hosts 21 Recovery Circles and 240 Members.
And those Members report that that Café is now their family.
With much appreciation and gratitude to Stephanie and Tony Mendenhall, Bill Maentz, Leila Carlson, and Brandon Orr for sharing these stories with us; we are grateful for your time, for the love shared and community being built through Recovery Café Medford, and that you are part of the Recovery Café Network!