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Coffee shop at Stella Maris brews hope and community in Cleveland

The coffee shop at Stella Maris is a place to seek support, or just a warm cup of coffee.

CLEVELAND — Since 1948, Stella Maris in Cleveland has provided addiction and mental health services to Northeast Ohio, providing a range of services from detoxification programs to workforce development. 

At its Ohio City campus, Stella Maris is also providing something else through its coffee shop - a place where the community at large can come together to reduce the stigma surrounding addiction, find support, and connect with others. 

According to CEO Daniel Lettenberger-Klein, Stella Maris is one of the largest providers of addiction treatment services in the region, serving five counties and caring for thousands of people every year.

“Our mission is to take care of anybody regardless of their ability to pay, and make sure we are providing transformational addiction treatment and behavioral health services throughout the community,” he said. 

Stella Maris provides a myriad of services, including inpatient and outpatient programs, housing services, and support groups, among other programming. Lettenberger-Klein said about 95% of the clients Stella Maris serves are at or below the federal poverty line. Funding for Stella Maris comes largely from Medicaid, in addition to local drug and alcohol boards, county funding, and foundations, he said. 

“When somebody walks through the front door, the first thing we're focused on is getting them engaged in services,” he said. “The funding source is not going to be the thing that stops them from coming in. If they hit the front door and there's a bed open, they're going to get it and we'll figure it out.”

However, Lettenberger-Klein knows that not all clients come through the front door. Another point of entry to Stella Maris is its coffee shop, where anyone can walk in and do some work, buy a cup of coffee, start a conversation, or inquire about services if they’re unsure where to begin. 

“For the indifferent or the unsure, this is a place often of hope, stability and potentially an opportunity to walk right upstairs and get into treatment,” he said of the coffee shop. “Because what we know about recovery and active addiction is the window of willingness is so small at the beginning, that if we don't provide an opportunity for everybody, somebody could ultimately lose their life, lose their battle addiction. We want to provide any and all opportunities for them to get well, so the coffee shop is that access, that hope, that conversation piece.”

Over the years, the coffee shop has hosted hundreds, if not thousands of meetings. Weekly, meetings are still hosted in the auditorium connected to the shop. Lettenberger-Klein calls the shop the “community’s home for recovery.” 

“It was a place where you didn't know if the person next to you was a week sober, not sober, or 30 years clean or knew nothing about recovery,” he said. “It was just a place we could all come and be together, and have some dialogue about what we do here.”

During the pandemic, many meetings and in-person resources shut down, leaving some in the recovery community with nowhere to turn for support or regular programming. Stella Maris, like others, worked to adapt, but quickly saw the impact isolation was having. 

“We started to see relapses of people that had 17 years, 18 years of sobriety,” said Carole Negus, Director of Nursing at Stella Maris. “They were coming in relapsing because all the 12-step recovery meetings were shutting down and people were staying at home and they were isolating.”

Negus said the team at Stella Maris understood how important it was for people to have a place to turn to to find the support and resources they needed. They took the opportunity to renovate the coffee shop, freshening it up and redesigning it to provide a much-needed space. 

“It's more than just a treatment facility,” she said. “I don't know how else to describe it, but it's a great place to work because you get to see people get the miracle of recovery and you get to watch it happen, and the light in their eyes lights up as they get it. So I don't know many places where you can watch that happen.”

Coffee shop manager Kathleen Shea sees the impact of the coffee shop firsthand as she gets to know her customers and lends a listening ear. For Shea, the shop combines two of her passions - coffee and recovery. 

“It’s a community space, but it feels like home, it just feels safe,” Shea said. “For me, I know I never felt safe before. So having a place where I can, people can come to and I can come to and feel safe is huge.”

Shea is in recovery herself and recalls feelings of desperation and hopelessness she felt at her lowest point. She ended up at a different center for treatment, but is able to use her experience to help others. 

“It's so important for me too to be able to be an example and listen to people, because I know exactly what they're going through because I literally was there, like I was in communal living and had to deal with all of that kind of stuff too,” she said. 

Shea said she has seen parents come in looking for help for their children, as well as people coming in to celebrate sober milestones. Those milestones are also displayed on the coffee shop counter, where recovery coins make up the bar top. The pastries in the case on the counter are also created by clients in the culinary workforce development program. 

“It’s a beautiful, beautiful front-row seat from where I get to sit,” Shea said.

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