Mind & Spirit

Finding Wholeness Through Addiction Recovery

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It may look like just a coffee house, but Restoration Cafe is helping its workers to regain their lives and discover a renewed confidence as they recover from destructive lifestyles.

Zach Valenta (left), Russell Woolsey and Jerry Williams prepare food inside the kitchen at Restoration Cafe. (Rebecca O'Malley photo)

On its surface, Restoration Cafe, 625 W. State St., looks like any other coffee house – wood and stone finishes, a lively urban crowd, custom coffee blends and a menu of sandwiches and pastries.

But look at the baristas and kitchen staff: they’re recovering substance abusers, learning vocational skills as they regain their lives. And listen to the music streaming from the speakers: that’s Christian rock music, a constant reminder of the faith-based initiatives across the street at the Rockford Rescue Mission.

As the Rescue Mission’s newest outreach, and a key component in its Life Recovery Program, the café offers vocational training and practical life skills to those who have lost their way. At the same time, it puts a very visible face to the addiction recovery and crisis outreach taking place next door.

“We wanted people to see that as long as there’s life, there’s hope,” says Sherry Pitney, the Rescue Mission’s executive director. “Maybe you’ve made a lot of bad choices, but the fact that God got you up today means there’s something for you to do. So let’s figure out what the pain is, and let’s work at that, but let’s work at getting all the pieces of your life together so that you can shine again and be functioning.”

Imagine a college in which the only major is life skills. That’s how the Rescue Mission’s recovery program helps people to get back on their feet. For 9 to 12 months, those recovering from substance abuse, domestic violence and destructive relationships live at the mission, attend classes during the day and complete housekeeping chores during the evenings. They learn discipline, teamwork, social skills and work skills that they’ve either forgotten or never learned. Midway through that program, they come to the café and put their learning to the test, practicing social habits and vocational skills. In many cases, workers have large gaps in their employment histories. Their time here equips them for a successful work experience.

The transition into recovery and vocational training wasn’t easy for 20-year-old Jerry Williams, who was always used to getting his way.

“I grew up in that mentality that if I don’t get it, then I’m going to get it somehow,” he says. “And you can’t do that over at the Rescue Mission. You can’t. There’s so much growth in there, with discipline, patience, obedience, manners. It’s just like pretty much going to school to learn the necessities.”

Williams came to the Rescue Mission in March, desperate for a change in his life. A drug user since age 11, the Savanna, Ill., native struggled to fit into his new surroundings. He wasn’t a people-person, and the only job he ever had lasted eight months in a fast-food chain.

“Jerry grew up a lot,” says Melanie Haas, a paid café supervisor. “He doesn’t cry anymore. There was a team of trainees here that alienated him because he could be emotionally unstable. But he worked through it, and now they’re really close.”

Williams credits a class on “authentic manhood” with really opening his eyes to new, positive behaviors.

“I didn’t know what I should do to become a man and take care of responsibilities, and take initiative to grow in life and become a better person,” he says. “The classes expand and open your mind to a lot of things. If you sit back and look at things, you could have realized them yourself. But you need that extra guidance to get back to where you need to be.”

Chris Eldridge, director of the men’s and education programs, sees guys like Williams all the time. They start off shy, closed-minded, introverted. But in working at the café, by struggling through basic skills and personal relations, they learn how to accomplish life goals.

“The Wall of Life” mural depicts the book started by the Rev. G.O. Pitney (pictured right, with wife Nadine), who kick-started the Mission in the 1960s and recorded the names of residents who committed themselves to the Christian faith.

“This environment is an easy translation of life applications,” says Eldridge. “When you’re in class just reading things and wondering how to apply it, it’s like algebra and geometry in high school. How am I ever going to use this again? This gives them an obvious push and says, ‘This is what you do, and this is how you use it in real life.’”

This is where the rescue mission’s program departs from traditional rehabilitation. Everything here is deliberate, designed to restore confidence and positive behavior in every participant.

“Stress that may lead them to destructive lifestyles, or coping mechanisms because of stress at work, finances, meeting deadlines – those really don’t surface when you’re in classrooms or counseling,” says Eldridge. “They almost inevitably surface when you’re on deadline. Those surface issues can translate back into their recovery program.”

Zach Valenta, 26, is one of the lucky few who hit the ground running. Almost from the start, his enthusiasm and his drive pushed him quickly toward recovery. The Crystal Lake, Ill., native became a team facilitator, leading the men’s crew during daily chores in the mission’s kitchen. Protected inside a supportive atmosphere, Valenta didn’t just find recovery from a drug addiction. He also found God.

“Being here and reading the Bible, I’ve just realized how much God has been with me all along, and there’s a reason I’m here,” he says. “Just the way I got here is a miracle. I tried other rehab facilities, all 30-day programs, but they were very short-lasting after I got out.”

This time, he’s finding success, thanks in part to the Rescue Mission’s holistic approach to recovery. Through faith-based initiatives, the mission focuses on body, mind and spirit.

“A big part of our mission statement is restoring people to wholeness,” says Pitney, whose mother- and father-in-law kick-started the mission in the 1960s. “They can grasp that, yes, they think they might be coming in for recovery alone, but we have an education center, we have a medical clinic, we have vocational training, and we’re going to work at all those things while you’re here for nine to 12 months.”

The Life Recovery Program is by far the most involved of the Rescue Mission’s services, because it involves counseling and addiction recovery, life skills training, vocational training and a transition program that helps residents to adjust. But at its West State Street headquarters, the Rescue Mission also serves meals to the homeless and offers crisis housing for men and women in dangerous situations or abusive relationships.
While those programs often fly under the radar, Restoration Cafe puts a far more public face to the Rescue Mission’s work. Plus, all its profits support the mission.

Starting out, the café was just a side project, a way to bring new life to an old car showroom that was recently used by a jail ministry. Pitney thought about the kitchen inside the Rescue Mission. She thought about the recovery program, and how participants wanted more vocational training, especially in culinary arts. The gears were spinning.

She toured rescue missions around the country. One hosted a family-style restaurant. Another did event catering. Then she met a coffee importer, and the coffee shop idea was born. In early 2008, she floated the concept with the rescue mission’s board, which supported her. Pitney and Rescue Mission staff renovated the old building, constructing walls and decorating with old fixtures donated by a salvager. A local business donated flooring and granite tabletops, and local graphic artist designed a mural.

The café opened for business in June 2009, attracting lawyers, judges and officers at the county justice center across the street.

“These are people who a lot of our workers were formerly standing in front of, in a negative context,” says Pitney. “Here, they can serve them, look them in the eye and be a respected person, a servant to them. That’s a neat thing, and it puts them in an environment where they are building some self-esteem because of the shame from their past.”

In just two and a half years, the café has really caught on. Former workers have found success at places like Denny’s, Chipotle and Rosecrance’s food service. The café and its mission have become so well-recognized that Pitney opened a second location inside the new Nicholas Conservatory & Gardens, at Sinnissippi Park.

“Maybe patrons can’t always volunteer their time, or maybe financially they’re dedicated to some other place,” says Pitney. “But to know that my purchase today is helping to feed and shelter less fortunate people in our community, and train people who are trying to get a leg up once they get out of here, that’s hugely fulfilling.”

They call Russell Woolsey “The Professor.” A stoic, articulate 29-year-old, Woolsey lacked the confidence to succeed, until he found the Rescue Mission.

“I was a malfunctioning person,” he says. “It gave me a chance to take a step back and sort of look at why that was happening, and gave me a different way to fix things that I hadn’t gotten over in my past. It gave me a chance to look at my life and realize why I was doing the things I was doing. That was what I needed, to take a timeout and correct issues that I have.”

Supervisor Haas watched his growth first-hand. Always offering encouragement and support to her staff, Haas was amazed to see just how much confidence Woolsey lacked at first. Slowly, he started coming around.
“He’s another one that told me his family never pushed him to go to college,” Haas says. “He has come so far. We talked about him being a teacher, and he said nobody’s ever talked to him like that. It gave him that positive attitude.”

Unfortunately, not everybody finds success. Sometimes, nurture can’t outdo nature.

“You see guys like Jerry, Zach and Russell who are really committed and they get it,” says Josh Delamater, café and nutrition supervisor. “Then you get guys in the middle who are good workers, but they’re still trying to figure things out. Then you get guys who come in and you just know that they’re not here for the change. They’re here to just kind of get a place to stay.”

But the successes are obvious, and they’re plenty. Pitney dreams of someday hanging photos of successful alumni, showcasing where they work today. Eldridge smiles when he recalls a recent success.

“We had a guy about seven months ago who got a job at Culver’s, and was hired in a pool of people” says Eldridge. “I asked the owner one day how this guy was doing. He just said it’s a lights-out difference from anyone else. I asked what he meant, and he said, ‘Well, with that whole pool, when we were training, everyone wanted to hear the whys and hows. All he had to do was hear it needed to be done and he was doing it.’”

Williams, Valenta and Woolsey have found particular success working at a coffee shop inside the YMCA. Still in the transitional program, they’re in the middle of a gradual step that lets them work in the community and stay at the mission, for a small rent. Valenta and Woolsey are eager to start classes in welding and English, respectively. Williams, too, is looking for new opportunities. Thanks to this program, all three have their eyes on a higher prize.

“I have a three-year-old son and I wasn’t a very good father,” says Valenta. “I want to be the father for him that my dad was for me, and just be a productive member of society and care about people. I did have a good childhood and loving parents, but I didn’t see that kind of love until I came here. I’ve been filled with it and I want to give that back. There are just endless possibilities for my future.” ❚

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