In the spring of 2017, citizens of Orting were faced with a string of overdose deaths.
Distraught people gathered at a City Council meeting on February 22, 2017, asking city leaders to do something to address the drug epidemic.
Dennis Paschke remembers that time. An Orting resident for four years and a pastor at the city’s United Methodist Church, the issue struck a chord with him.
“We certainly in our family have lived experience,” Paschke said. “I’m in long-term recovery. We have boys who wrestled with addiction — almost lost one.”
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So when he brought forward the idea to open Recovery Café Orting Valley to help those struggling and recovering from addiction, homelessness and mental illness, the support came out in droves.
“There are very few families that haven’t been affected by some kind of addiction in their lives,” Paschke said.
The Recovery Café Orting Valley will open its doors Saturday after a year of planning. It’s gathered support from Pierce County Human Services, the Korum for Kids Foundation, Tulalip Tribes, Molina Healthcare and the Methodist Church.
It also has support from the city.
“We need to be hard on the crime part of (addiction) but also soft in helping people get out of it,” Orting Mayor Josh Penner said. “I think that the work Dennis is doing is really coming at a good time.”
“The Orting Valley, which includes Sumner, Puyallup, Bonney Lake, Buckley and Eatonville, has witnessed an acute problem of addiction for a long time, but in 2017, after a series of fatal overdoses, the community realized it was time for change,” stated a Recovery Café press release on Nov. 6.
A relationship model
The Recovery Café Network was first started in Seattle in 2004 and since has expanded to 14 locations across seven states, including one in Tacoma.
The program is funded by government grants, individual contributions, foundations and in-kind donations. Last year Recovery Café as a whole raised more than $1,689,000, according to a 2017 annual report.
Orting Valley is the organization’s newest location, located at 113 Varner Ave. SE. The space was donated by the United Methodist Church next door and formerly housed a daycare. Inside are meeting rooms and a bistro that serves coffee to members.
The Orting location has one paid employee and eight board members, all of whom are volunteers. Many volunteers have experience in addiction treatment.
“Someone who is active in their addiction, if they don’t sense that you have any real experience … your words are meaningless, they’re empty to them,” Paschke said. “On the other hand, addicts can speak to addicts and alcoholics can speak to alcoholics in a way that nobody else can. So everybody here will have long-term recovery experience.”
The organization prides itself on its model, which is based on building relationships and community, said Recovery Café Network director David Uhl.
“What we think helps make it be effective (is) we’re a membership-based organization,” Uhl said. “We’re not a drop-in center, we’re not a place where we can just come when you feel like it.”
When starting with Recovery Café, members must:
Be drug and alcohol free 24 hours before coming on site
Agree to engage in a recovery circle every week
Be involved in a training or learning program
Washington State Department of Health data shows 131 fatal drug overdoses occurring in Pierce County between 2012 and 2016.
Pierce County Councilman Derek Young, who chairs the county’s Opioid Task Force, said the council supports the Recovery Café initiative.
“The main thing is this kind of peer recovery model,” Young said. “That seems to be at the core of everything that works well … The idea behind all of this is to knock down as many barriers as possible.”
CJ Lewis started as a Recovery Café member in Tacoma. She’s now the senior manager of the Orting location and says the cafe breaks the cycle of addiction.
“I spent 12 years in addiction and when I went to treatment after I got out, I felt like I didn’t know where I fit in the world,” Lewis said. “I knew I didn’t want to go back to the old way of life, but I didn’t exactly have a community of support around me. Recovery Café gave me that.”
After joining, members are encouraged to continue helping out at the Recovery Café as long as they’re able. They can help with the community garden out front or with other members.
“We’re excited to walk alongside Orting because they themselves are saying, ‘This is how we want to respond (to the drug epidemic),’” Uhl said.
Tackling root problems
Paschke says that by addressing the opioid and heroin epidemic in the city, Recovery Café also tackles another issue: homelessness.
A 2017 Recovery Café report showed that 53 percent of its members were experiencing homelessness.
“I think the only way we’re going to overcome this epidemic is the way people got into it — one person at a time,” Paschke said. “There’s no magic drug that can be prescribed, there’s no magic policy that someone from Washington or Olympia is going to come up with. It’s going to be about people caring enough that one at a time we pull them out of the swamp.”
A report by Catholic Community Services of Western Washington dated from November 2017 to Oct. 31, 2018 shows a total of 22 individuals experiencing homeless in the Orting area. Six were recorded as dealing with substance abuse, while 11 were experiencing mental health issues.
Another report by the group dated May 31 shows a monthly homeless count in Orting averaging around 17 people, with an estimated 5,000 individuals across the county. The reports note that data varies depending on an individual’s interaction with the homeless system.
Paschke anticipates individuals from neighboring cities will come to the cafe. He estimates around 15 members to start with a projection of 30-50 members in 2019.
“We’re trying to set an expectation of them that, yes, you do matter,” Paschke said. “Because a lot of people, addiction is a disease of isolation and loss of hope so the more we can instill hope in them, the better.”
About the event
What: Recovery Café Orting Valley
When: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday
Where: 113 Varner Ave. SE, Orting