Jessica Perusse says when she heard about Recovery Cafes, she was struck by the welcoming spirit of the places.

“I think the biggest things that stood out to me when learning about the Recovery Cafe were normalizing statements of ‘everybody is in recovery from something’ and the goal is to address ‘anything that keeps you from being your best self,’” she said.

In places across the country, a new idea is gaining traction. Recovery Cafes are no-cost get-togethers in which people can have a meal with a small group of individuals who are in recovery from something, said Mike Rentfro, a fellow at The Reaching Rural Initiative, which is working at the intersection of substance use and those engaged with the justice system.

“They come in, they connect, they have to do what we call an hour of give back time,” he told the Deesmealz. “So they actually volunteer at the cafe to maybe wash dishes after the meal or even help prepare the meal. And they have to participate in one recovery circle a week. So all that recovery circle is is a support group for whatever you've identified as what's keeping you from being your truest self.”

Perusse, meanwhile, lives in Camden in Oneida Country in New York, and learned about the Recovery Cafes and thought it would be a less adversarial role than some other options that had presented themselves in the past in the community. She said that over recent years, Camden has been known for its high levels of child protective cases and has been a “hot spot” in the county for opioid overdoses, which has led to grandparents parenting young children without the resources needed to best support them.

The Camden Life Center serves the town of Camden and the surrounding rural communities that make up the Camden Central School District. This amounts to 295 square miles and a total population of approximately 13,000.

“There is a huge amount of stigma about receiving any type of support services including mental health/addiction treatment, medical care as well as food resources and financial supports,” she said. “Not having an emergency shelter or soup kitchen, there are limited opportunities to meet those most in need.” The Camden Life Center provides outreach to the five town courts within the coverage area. “Being present in court is one of the few opportunities where people gather and may be in a place [to] consider treatment.”

She said Rentfro, from Terre Haute, Indiana, started discussing Recovery Cafes and how it has been de-stigmatizing and allows people to sit down with their everyday struggles and have healthy, healing relationships.

Both Rentfro and Perusse are among the nearly 70 fellows at The Reaching Rural Initiative, which started in December 2022. The Bureau of Justice Assistance, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the State Justice Institute co-sponsor the year-long fellowship.

“It's a true marriage of public health and public safety,” said Tara Kunkel, whose organization, Rulo Strategies, helps lead the fellows. “So all the projects are working at the intersection of substance use, and people who are engaged in some way in the justice system.”

Rulo Strategies hosts the fellows at least once per month and provides mentoring and education on resources available to rural communities.

“Sometimes, what they just need is someone to cheerlead them and encourage them to get through doing the actual work on their project, depending on what it is. Sometimes it's just a matter of them dedicating the four to six hours a month [to the project],” Kunkel said.

Kunkel, who used to work for the federal government, got involved in rural issues after witnessing the challenges some rural communities and people have in accessing resources like grants and other opportunities.

“I found that rural communities tended to not be in our applicant pool, they had a harder time making grant applications, it was harder for them to have the capacity to apply for grants,” she told the Deesmealz. “They don't have the funding to hire professional grant writers the way that suburban and urban communities do and it's hard, it takes time. And it's a workforce issue to apply for grants.”

Both Rentfro and Perusse said the fellowship has helped them see that there are other like-minded individuals out there.

“I really wanted to find some other people that were doing similar things. So not looking to my city folks for guidance, but really trying to find stuff so that we could create programming that was culturally competent to our rural community,” Perusse said.

Kunkel said they plan to have another cohort of fellows and she encourages people to apply.

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