From Dungeon to Beach Café—Creating Embracing and Healing Spaces

by Michael Schut, Communications Manager

From the resort town of Daytona Beach, to big-city Seattle, to rural counties in Indiana and Washington, the attitudes are strikingly similar and familiar: the lives of those who come to Recovery Cafés don’t matter so much. And so the physical spaces—to the specifics of the carpet, the paint, the furniture, the artwork, the light—likewise don’t matter so much.

But, from the start in 2003, Recovery Café has insisted on establishing spaces that are beautiful and healing. That commitment is important enough that the first of the six Core Commitments, to which all Recovery Cafés agree, is to “Create a community space that is drug- and alcohol-free, embracing, and healing.”

Four vignettes follow—one from 20 years ago, in Seattle, the other three from Cafés opened in the last four months. The vignettes describe moments in time as these four Cafés created their spaces, integrated community voices into the design, and embodied that Core Commitment such that the space speaks for itself: “You are loved and your life matters.” 

The original Recovery Café (after the zebra tiles were removed!) in Seattle’s Belltown neighborhood (2007)

Recovery Café Seattle: Dizzying Zebra Tiles

Killian Noe, the Network’s Cofounder, tells this story about the creation of the first Recovery Café in Seattle.

When we were making tenant improvements to our first space . . . we ordered carpet tiles which would complement the beautiful paint we had chosen. . . . The construction company mistakenly sent the wrong carpet tiles. The crew laying the tiles must have thought we had really bad taste, but they laid the tiles that were sent.

When I arrived the next day, excited to see the space with the carefully chosen carpet, I felt sick to my stomach. The carpet tiles were alternating zebra stripes that made me dizzy when I stared at the floor too long. I wondered if we could get used to the vertigo-inducing zebra stripes, like getting used to a bad haircut, but there was just no way. We called the carpet supplier. When he saw the space he offered to give us the zebra tiles for free. We were grateful for his offer, but respectfully insisted that he remove the zebra tiles and install the pattern we had selected.

“Do you really think that the women and men who come to your Recovery Café are going to care if the carpet is not a good match?” he asked.

“Honestly,” we answered, “they probably won’t care, because they are used to being treated as if their lives are somehow less valuable than the lives of others. But at Recovery Café, everything will communicate, ‘You are loved and your life matters.’”

. . . The correct carpet was ordered and installed within two weeks. In the meantime, we had to live with the zebra tiles. Lots of jokes were made among our team during those two weeks about changing our name from Recovery Café to “Zebra Bar and Lounge.”1

ReNew Recovery Café—Initial Soft Opening on December 1

The main Café space before renovations
The main Café space after renovations

Daytona Beach is a resort town on Florida’s east coast; many there would prefer that those on the margins remain out of sight.  

Linda Kemp-Baird and the Renew Recovery Café team heard, “You can just use whatever’s left over,” as they began looking for furniture and planning for their Café’s space—an attitude notably similar to what Killian heard from the carpet supplier twenty years earlier out in Seattle.  

Instead, Linda, the Café’s Executive Director, said they were very selective about what they “let in” to the Café. They chose a bright, tropical theme because their main gathering space has no windows. They wanted people to say, “Wow!” when they stepped into the Café.

They succeeded in doing that, but Linda emphasized that it’s “the people” that are most beautiful to her. And, in making everyone feel welcome, validated, and comfortable, Renew Recovery Café considers the unsheltered in all that they do. 

Installing floors in the activity room

Linda told this story as an example: one of the Café’s strongest Members, who does have a place to live, had a birthday coming up. Her grandmother texted, saying she wanted to bring a birthday cake to the Café to celebrate. The Café team thought, “Well, why not?”

But as they sang happy birthday and passed out pieces of cake, they noticed the faces of those Members who were unhoused. Their faces conveyed some hurt, some sadness—no one buys the unsheltered a birthday cake. So, the Café now has a policy, you could call it, of buying a delicious birthday cake once a month and celebrating all of those month’s birthdays together. 

As her story illustrates, Linda emphasized that it’s in the relationships she has with Members—with  George, Monty, and Patrice, in the relationships being built day after day in the Café’s healing space—that they are becoming a Member-based community deeply informed by Members’ experiences.  

Recovery Café Mason County—Grand Opening on February 1

Before renovations
After renovations

Athena Ayres, Executive Director of Recovery Café Mason County (Washington), describes how some people in her rural county are particularly hard on those experiencing homelessness or addiction. And the abuse takes place not only in person—pictures have been taken and posted on social media, along with denigrating comments about those living on the margins. 

The space identified for their new Recovery Café had served as an overnight shelter for men, for some of those on the margins in Mason County. Athena described it as, “A bit of a dungeon, dark, certainly not a place where you’d want to take refuge.” 

As the Café’s Core Team and volunteers set about imagining their space, they asked community members and potential Café Members what kind of space they wanted. Maybe a beach theme? Or summery? Or reminiscent of a rich Northwest forest? 

They voted. When the votes were tallied, the beach won out.

Two local businesses contributed a great deal to transforming the space. Two Guys Construction, comprised of two men in recovery themselves, donated $5,000 worth of their time. And Builders First Source donated all the lumber and materials for the renovation. And so the decidedly non-refuge-like overnight shelter became a warm space invoking the peacefulness of a lovely beach.

Athena feels strongly that they got such good results because they invited people to participate in the design and offered a shared sense of purpose. The community responded.

Recovery Café Madison—Grand Opening on February 28

Recovery Café Madison
Recovery Café Madison from another angle

When asked what he finds most beautiful about their space, Brad Wood, Recovery Café Madison’s (Indiana) Board President, quickly replied: “The people.” He notes that color and design aren’t the characteristics of a space that most strike him—but he and his Core Team felt passionate about creating a space “that provides dignity and honors that dignity.”

And so, like Recovery Café Mason County, they asked for community and Member input. Potential Café Members created artwork, took up rollers and brushes, and gained a sense of ownership in the Café space. 

In establishing their Café, the team formed partnerships across the community. They emphasized the importance of being specific in their requests of those partners: could the town’s furniture store donate a certain number of couches; could the neighboring restaurant offer one meal a month?

Throughout the process, even before the Café’s renovations had started, Recovery Café Madison practiced the radical hospitality so central to the Recovery Café Model. Even on those early tours of the space, as they began to build community partnerships, that hospitality informed all that they did and how visitors were treated. Even before they opened, the Café’s healing milieu was being established.

Finding Home

Ram Daas writes: “We are all just walking each other home.” A home can be fraught with trauma, and not having a home certainly is. But the 57 Recovery Cafés, like the four very briefly highlighted here, are all seeking to create “embracing and healing” spaces where we can all simply feel like we are walking each other home, to a home that is lovely and loving and healing. 

As Athena from Recovery Café Mason County said, “Some really life-changing things can happen when people are just treated well.”

Thank you to Athena Ayres, Linda Kemp-Baird, and Brad Wood for your time and generosity in talking about your Café’s experiences!

  1. Noe, Killian. Descent into Love: How Recovery Café Came to Be, pages 82-85.