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Cafe Appalachia part of nonprofit fighting opioid epidemic

January 6, 2019
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This Oct. 17, 2018 photo shows Cafe Appalachia in South Charleston, W.Va. Café Appalachia in Charleston is intended to serve as a support tool in helping fight the opioid epidemic by providing a safe learning and working environment for women in long-term recovery programs. (Jenny Harnish/The Register-Herald via AP)

SOUTH CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — A steeple rises up from the arched roof. Brightly colored stained glass adds a pop of color inside the window frames. Out front, a sign welcomes visitors with a new message each day.

Today, it’s grilled pimento cheese sandwiches, basil tomato soup and signature salad.

The doors swing open and smiling patrons leave after enjoying lunch at South Charleston’s Cafe Appalachia.

As most visitors can quickly tell, the restaurant/cafe, open since July, is located inside a former church building.

But Cafe Appalachia is about more than food.

As Pollen8 CEO and founder Cheryl Laws says it’s nourishment for the community and intended to serve as a support tool in helping fight the opioid epidemic by providing a safe learning and working environment for women in long-term recovery programs.

Laws, a native of Charleston, had worked as a hairdresser for 20 years when she says she decided to change things up.

“It just laid on my heart and I said, ‘OK, I’ll go back to school. OK, I’ll do this,’” she says. “And it’s been my path ever since.”

Laws’ “path” led her to pursue studies in sociology and then a Master’s degree in Appalachian Studies from Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C.

It was while away from home that Laws’ plans were born.

“This is actually my thesis,” she says, as she looks around from her spot on a couch at the back of the cafe.

“It’s basically how to reintegrate a substance abuser back into West Virginia society,” she says. “So when I got out (of school), I created Pollen8.”

Pollen8, Laws explains, is the nonprofit umbrella under which Cafe Appalachia exists.

“It’s the idea of pollination in a community,” she says, explaining the name, which includes the number 8, for infinity. “For me it means do your part or ‘do your medicine,’ so to speak.”

Through her research, Laws determined Pollen8 should focus on prevention and reintegration. So, in addition to Cafe Appalachia, Pollen8 has formed the Appalachian Academy working in schools, even partnering with police in hopes of finding children before drugs find them, Camp Appalachia for children in the summer, and Appalachian Behavioral Health Care, to offer therapy to addicts and their families.

But it’s Cafe Appalachia, perhaps, that has gotten the most attention so far and lends itself easiest to community involvement.

Two days each week, a group of women enrolled in treatment at Charleston’s Recovery Point come to Cafe Appalachia where Laws says they learn everything from culinary to gardening skills, as the restaurant is billed as a farm-to-table buffet.

“We work with them to give them a skill set that they can get a job with,” she says. “Right now we’re starting with the cafe, but we’re going to grow based on what their interests are. When they graduate, everyone will have a food handler card.”

From its opening until the end of October, Cafe Appalachia partnered with the Kanawha Institute for Social Research and Action (KISRA), where the women in the program grew vegetables for use in the restaurant. But the women have also been hard at work converting the yard beside the cafe, the former play area for St. John’s United Methodist Church, into a vegetable garden.

“They’re helping design the garden,” Laws says. “Two weeks ago they shoveled 8 tons of pebbles. And we’re building a greenhouse. That’s their next project.”

The outdoor space, which will soon include a seating area, also features a memory garden, butterfly bushes, and a fire pit in the shape of West Virginia adorned with brightly painted rocks with messages such as “Love, Hope Faith” and “Your past does not have to keep repeating itself.”

The women in the program are unpaid right now, but Laws says she recently wrote a $50,000 grant and hopes to pay them $8.75 per hour soon.

“I wanted to pay them $15, but everything has its own movement,” she says.

The women also receive therapeutic treatment in terms of job counseling and help in establishing where they are mentally in their recovery.

“We have a reintegration specialist who sits down and figures out, ‘How bad did you screw up?’” Laws explains. ”‘Who is still talking to you in your family? Can we heal that through therapy?’”

It’s women, she says, she has chosen to work with because it’s often women who are left to keep the family together.

“Because I’m a woman,” she says. “I know sometimes men step up and take responsibility, but it’s usually women and I can do all I want to help kids, but it won’t help if I don’t fix their mothers.”

It’s a busy day inside Cafe Appalachia as the lunch crowd moves steadily through.

Vickie Ballengee has visited several times, as she is the executive director for Heart and Hand Outreach Ministry just next door.

“We partner together,” she says of the two organizations. “Last Sunday we had our annual fundraiser for hunger. We concluded our event inside here to help educate the community about what they’re doing here. We partner whenever we can. We want them to be successful.”

Ballengee is enjoying lunch with friend Bernie Deem, a first-time visitor who is on a dual mission.

“I love to eat and the fact that I can eat for a great cause just thrills me,” she says, adding a recommendation for the signature salad.

Lunch plates at the cafe come in two sizes — small and large — and at recommended prices of $7 or $8 for small and $9 or $10 for large.

“It’s what you can afford today,” barista/manager Emily Boggess says, explaining anything above the recommended price goes into the donation jar with those proceeds going for expenses such as the van the cafe will soon purchase.

But Boggess says those who can’t afford to pay can still have a meal, as long as they are willing to work for an hour.

“So it’s a hand-up and not a handout,” she says.

And that’s one of the things that Laws says she believes makes Cafe Appalachia special.

Boggess says she knows Cafe Appalachia is special.

She has been through treatment and is two years clean, but as a felon — a former banker with embezzlement on her record — good jobs can be difficult to come by. She says Cafe Appalachia is a good job.

“I want to work in a safe environment and not be so institutionalized,” she says, “and here I can be honest with my co-workers and say ‘Hey, I need to go to a (treatment) meeting.’ And if anybody does come in here and they have a family member who needs to go to treatment, I have resources that I can help give them information or hand them a card.”

She says being able to do that makes her feel as though she’s making some sort of amends.

“It’s a way I can give back to my community what I took away from it while I was out in the madness,” she says. “I just like to be able to get the word out there that we’re doing our part and trying to help. The opioid epidemic is not going away. So what can I do to make it better?”

Laws has a suggestion.

“You want to get involved?” she asks. “Come down here and eat. That helps. Volunteers help.”

And although she says she’d like to see more places like Cafe Appalachia, she says it’s a one-time shot for her, as she wants to focus on the other aspects of Pollen8.

“I’m not doing another one of these things ever,” she says. “But one of the grants I got, I have to put together a presentation to tell other communities how to do this. My ultimate goal for the cafe would be to have these all over West Virginia. The same model. I would give that tool and I would speak to people to help them.”

She continues, “I told someone the other day, in my mind, I’m so naive, but in my mind, I’m the project manager for Pollen8. I built a program, but what I really became was a restaurant owner. But I’m not a restaurant owner. So I’m trying to find someone who can take over because I want to build. That’s Pollen8. I’m a queen bee. I want to build hives. That’s my skill set. That’s what I’m good at. My long-term goal is I want to build a program that takes a drug addict from beginning to end to show everything I’ve learned works and that recovery can’t just be 30 days.”

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Information from: The Register-Herald, http://www.register-herald.com

All contents © copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.
1 of 4
This Oct. 17, 2018 photo shows Cafe Appalachia in South Charleston, W.Va. Café Appalachia in Charleston is intended to serve as a support tool in helping fight the opioid epidemic by providing a safe learning and working environment for women in long-term recovery programs. (Jenny Harnish/The Register-Herald via AP)