Who better to start a program to help the down and out than someone who has been way down and far out?
Gabe Cohen became addicted to cocaine at age 15. He moved to from New York to Denver at age 19 but fell out of favor with extended family because of his drug use. He found himself homeless after leaving rehab. His first felony arrest for drug possession came in Aspen in 1996. He was in and out of the Colorado Department of Corrections seven times between 1998 and 2011.
“I have literally been homeless, released (from incarceration) wearing the paper shoes or getting out of detox or paroled and being homeless,” Cohen said. “I know what it feels like to be marginalized. I’ve been there for sure.
“I’m open about it because I think there is power in sharing your story and also the work I do today gives meaning to the wreckage of the past,” Cohen added.
After his final release from prison at age 41, he found himself broke and homeless. It was then, he said, that he found “my pathway to recovery.”
He moved to the Western Slope and reconnected with his two sons. He steered his life into helping others rather than harming himself.
“I really just felt called to service,” he said.
Cohen, 51, of New Castle, founded the nonprofit Kings and Priests Ministry a few years ago and started teaching Bible studies to inmates in Garfield and Eagle counties. He also worked with other nonprofits to share his story and motivate others to improve their plight.
But through his experiences as both a former scofflaw and a peer counselor, he knew where gaps existed. It motivated him to start Discovery Café, which opened last year in Rifle and three weeks ago in Basalt.
“We are a safe place of belonging for anybody that’s experiencing any kind of trauma — homelessness, addiction, any kind of mental health challenges,” Cohen said. “We want everybody to know there is a place they belong for anyone that might feel marginalized or disenfranchised.”
Discovery Café operates three days per week in Rifle and two days per week in Basalt. Jarid Rollins, director of behavioral health services at MidValley Family Practice in Basalt, had worked with Cohen previously and saw a need for Discovery Café in the Roaring Fork Valley.
Rollins and fellow counselor Joey Carlson work with clients in a clinical setting. They realized the value of having peer to peer counseling as well, so MidValley Family Practice made its conference room available to Discovery Café on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 1 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. People are offered a lunch between 1 and 2 p.m. and dinner from 5:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. on both days.
But the café isn’t a soup kitchen. It’s a member-based model where people using services are asked to attend a “recovery circle” once per week, either from 2 to 3 p.m. or 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. on Thursdays.
It’s a time when members can celebrate accomplishments, acknowledge failures, discuss goals and, if interested, enlist feedback. Cohen, who is executive director and peer support specialist, or recovery coaches Debb Fache and Stephanie Weiss are part of every recovery circle.
The program isn’t solely for people fighting drug or alcohol addiction, though Cohen estimated that’s why about 70% of the members attend.
“We like to say we’re all in recovery from something,” Cohen said. “It could be somebody going through divorce, domestic violence, incarceration, homelessness. We basically welcome everybody.”
Lori Sawyer found a connection as a Discovery Café member since mid-summer. She attends at Rifle and was at Basalt on Thursday. Sawyer is refreshingly blunt about her demons in an era where everything is polished and everyone from corporations to individuals is careful to spin their image.
“I’ve had a lifetime of addiction,” Sawyer said. “It started at (age) 11 with an eating disorder, which is an addiction. It just sort of bounced to drugs, alcohol, anything that I can grab onto that can make my mind block out stuff and life. I’ve had so many failed experiences in my lifetime.”
Sawyer said she has been in multiple programs to help her with her addictions but really likes the approach of Discovery Café. She attributes its success to Cohen’s experiences with addiction, prison and homelessness.
“It’s a place where we can go where we don’t feel we’re the only ones in the world that have messed up so bad,” she said. “He knows how to help people. He knows what helps. So many of the systems don’t really know what helps people.”
The peer-to-peer support is the key to the café’s success for her.
“I want people to know about this and that it’s different,” Sawyer said. “It’s a resource that helps.”
Maureen, a resident of the Roaring Fork Valley, attends recovery circle meetings but not because of addiction.
“I come for strength and support,” she said. (Only her first name is being used for family privacy.)
She is grieving the death of her youngest son within the last year. Her oldest son came into contact with Cohen while her son was being held in Garfield County Jail. He still meets with Cohen and the results inspired her to try the café.
The recovery circles build camaraderie and a sense of belonging, Maureen said. “You need somewhere to go, a safe place to express yourself.”
She feels the program is invaluable.
“I would do whatever I could to help Gabe,” Maureen said.
Like Cohen, recovery coach Fache has been there, done that, so she can relate to members’ experiences. She is recovering from a meth addiction, and spent 16 of her 62 years in Colorado Department of Corrections facilities. She was released two years ago in April and remains on parole.
During her most recent sentence for nine years she enlisted in every self-help program available.
“I had a nine-year reprieve to work on me,” Fache said.
When released on parole, she attended a class being taught by Cohen. She learned about Discovery Café and knew it was something she wanted to get involved in so she received recovery coach training.
“It’s just different,” she said of the program.
Rollins feels that way, too. There’s an effective symbiosis between MidValley Family Practice’s services for people facing addiction, mental illness and other issues and what Discovery Café offers. At times, Cohen and staff refer members to the physicians’ office for medical treatment. The practice refers some of its clients to the café.
MidValley Family Practice has partnered with two other organizations to help with people facing addictions and/or other issues. Phoenix Gym, a Denver-based recovery gym, has worked with TAC Fitness to make hours available for people in recovery and those supporting people in recovery, every Friday from 3 to 5 p.m. TAC Fitness is across the parking lot from MidValley Family Practice.
In addition, a nonprofit called High Rockies Harm Reduction holds hours at the practice every other Monday starting Jan. 31 between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. It offers an interesting mix of services — educating and training on the use of Narcan, a medication that reverses opioid overdoses; syringe services, including supplying sterile injection, smoking and snorting equipment; wound care and hygiene supplies; and peer recovery support where they find the right services for individual’s needs.
Cohen sees a bona fide need for the services of Discovery Café and the other organizations due to the party atmosphere of the Roaring Fork Valley and strains created by the COVID-19 pandemic. He wants people to know there is no judging at Discovery Café and there is no shaming if people stumble while dealing with their addictions. That’s another lesson he learned firsthand.
Cohen said he thought he had licked his addiction and was merely a functional cocaine user when he overdosed in 2018 and suffered medical consequences. At the time, he was providing Bible study in Glenwood Springs by day and driving to Aspen to work as a nightclub bouncer at night.
“God was like, you can’t be on both sides,” Cohen said.