‘Fresh food, fresh start’: Tucson cafe doubles as training program for people with mental illness

At first glance, Café 54 looks like any other eclectic and artistic food spot, with drawings, paintings and collages covering its red brick walls. But look closer and the restaurant’s unique mission becomes apparent.

The table numbers customers receive after ordering include the story of a famous person with mental illness – singer Adele, for example, who has openly said she lives with depression. And those who work in the restaurant wear T-shirts displaying its motto: “Fresh Food, Fresh Start”.

Located in downtown Tucson, Café 54 serves as an employment training program for people with mental or developmental disabilities. Interns are paid to work as cashiers, cooks, dishwashers and servers. The aim is to help them acquire new skills and secure permanent employment in the labor market – whenever they are ready.

“We believe recovery is possible for everyone, and often it’s best achieved…through community engagement and employment,” said Jeff Grobe, executive director of Coyote TaskForce, an organization in nonprofit that advocates for adults with mental illness.

The organization opened Café 54 in 2004 to create a non-clinical setting to help people achieve their goals, whether that be employment, developing social skills or making friends.

“We’re trying to break down the stigma of mental illness,” Grobe said. “Every meal we serve is an opportunity for someone in the Tucson community, or outside it, to recognize that mental illness is no longer the barrier it used to be, and that it hasn’t no need to be a hindrance at all. ”

Mental illness affects 1 in 5 adults across the country, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. In Arizona, more than one million adults suffer from a mental health problem, but about a third do not receive the health care they need, often because of cost. People of color are even less likely to seek mental health care, NAMI reports.

Of the estimated 11 million adults living with serious mental illness in the United States, up to 90% are unemployed, studies show. Yet research indicates that most of these people want to work and consider finding a job a top priority.

Supported employment, which matches people with serious mental illness with appropriate jobs and provides ongoing support during employment, is an evidence-based practice that can help patients succeed, according to the Federal Health Administration. addiction and mental health services.

At Café 54, interns are typically referred by psychologists, psychiatrists, case managers, and other behavioral health providers. Coffee employment can last from a few weeks to several months and can be extended depending on the individual needs of the intern.

Mercedes Diaz, 22, who has been an intern for nearly three months, has mental health issues and is on the autism spectrum, but said she never let that hold her back.

“I always wanted a job. I learn quickly and I like to learn things,” she says. “They like me here because I like learning new things.”

Diaz worked in the front and back of the house, checking food, manning the cash register and delivering plates to tables. But his stint at Café 54 ends this month. She seeks positions at Harkins Theaters and Fry’s, and aspires to one day work for Amazon and perhaps become a teacher.

“I never had a job before that,” she says. “People here have been really supportive, and it feels like family. I will be sad to leave.

While at Café 54, interns work with a job developer who helps them create resumes and cover letters and apply for positions. These coaches, Diaz said, “guide us to work on our next chapter in our lives.”

Success stories like Diaz’s are what Laurie Taylor, program manager at Café 54, strives for.

Diagnosed with schizophrenia in her twenties, Taylor remained stable on medication for 10 years before a new doctor said she had been misdiagnosed and took her off medication. Within a year, Taylor said, she lost her job, became homeless and ended up in jail.

After undergoing court-ordered treatment, she stabilized and pursued certification as a Peer Support Specialist. She was hired at Café 54 in 2014 and provides day-to-day support and leads monthly recovery team meetings with interns to review their progress.

“There is more than just a job,” she said. “We help people find housing. We help them stabilize on medication. We teach them coping skills and encourage them to go to therapy and create that supportive community.

The program has had many successes. Grobe specifically remembers an intern who had suffered a traumatic brain injury but turned his life around after Café 54.

“He learned both front and back skills,” Grobe said. “He just needed a chance, he needed an opportunity…and now he’s working in finance. He comes back and he volunteers all the time for us. …

“These success stories are the reason we do this. Someone gets this job, and you can see their face light up. They get their first paycheck and they call us about it. … It’s just an amazing feeling, because that person’s life improved dramatically at that time.

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