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Community Matters Cafe offers hope to those in recovery, shift by shift

Community Matters Cafe offers hope to those in recovery, shift by shift

CHARLOTTE, NC — Plate falls on table Community Matters Cafe it was immediately striking: two offset pancakes topped with golden corn, pulled pork, and sunny-side-up eggs, all bound together with a red glaze that looked as if it had been applied by an aspiring Rembrandt.

As per the norm, I rotated the plate and looked at it from every angle to see which side of the dish was best. Then I pointed my phone at what was called Pulled Pork Johnny Cakes on the menu and started moving the plate around for the best light.

“Are you taking pictures?!” A woman wearing the staff T-shirt of this nonprofit restaurant, a restaurant that was founded to provide education for people struggling with addiction and struggling to enter the workforce, came to the table next to me.

He said this with a degree of shock that would have embarrassed me if he knew his camera roll contained thousands of photos just like this. But he also said it with a degree of amusement.

“Fabulous!” I said, and he smiled back and shrugged his shoulders with pride. Without another word, he turned, pushed open the double doors to the kitchen, and hurried inside.

The entire conversation lasted 10 seconds, so fast that I didn’t catch his name or get a chance to ask a follow-up question. But I had a strong feeling that I had encountered the enthusiastic Rembrandt.

When you walk into Community Matters Cafe, you might be forgiven for not realizing there was something bigger going on here. In fact, chef Chayil Johnson would take that as a huge compliment. The cafe is a project of Charlotte’s Central Rescue Mission, located next to the organization’s men’s facility (a women’s campus is about two miles away) and in the shadow of the city’s NFL stadium. Signs in the parking lot warn potential partygoers that alcohol is strictly prohibited on the premises, out of respect for residents who have worked hard to break the habit.

Mission provides addiction rehabilitation to anyone over the age of 18 who signs them up. The program lasts four months, followed by a series of follow-up programs to help smooth the re-entry into the real world, including a six-month stint working in a café.

At first, I assumed the idea was to prepare people to work in the hospitality industry, but it soon became clear that the goal was to prepare them to work anywhere.

“This is a life skills curriculum disguised as a restaurant,” says outgoing CEO Tony Marciano.

The café, with its industrial revival aesthetic in a historic red-brick building, has a gleaming kitchen assembled mostly with equipment donations from area hotels. The breakfast-lunch menu will satisfy any well-fed urban hipster. There’s an Instagram scene waiting around every corner. All the ingredients for a vibrant venue.

But its purpose goes beyond trendy nutrition. The real mission is to save lives.

This sounds like hyperbole. But then Johnson shows me photos on the wall of groups of people who were in their first graduate classes five years ago. He lights up with most of the success stories, but then he reaches out to one person at least once per photo, says their name, and winces a little. I don’t ask. I can see how that story ends.

Yusmari Cruz, 42, who graduated from the program last year after decades of addiction, said she has known 17 people who died of drug-related causes in the past two years. I assume I heard wrong and ask her to repeat it.

Seventeen people. In two years.

My breath caught. Cruz’s story makes the hyperbole palpable.

Everyone I spoke to at the café—some alumni, some working, some both—had a story of loss, but their stories also included gratitude for the chance to tell them.

In the stories of several graduates, patterns emerge. There is much talk of “hitting rock bottom.” Many describe an intervention from family and/or friends who encouraged them to seek help. The phrase “They met me where I was” is uttered more than once.

The look in their eyes shows determination and reserve: you can see that they are in a good place right now, and they know how sensitive this is.

If they look closely, they might sense something similar in my eyes. A quarter of a century ago, one of my best friends succumbed to addiction, and that loss is with me every day. Part of me wants to ask the hard questions to better understand what happened to my friend, but it becomes a delicate dance in which I never want to force someone to answer a question that has become triggering. So I ask the questions, and I find the answers where they are, even if they rarely go as deep as I hope.

Then I met Chris Carmack.

Carmack, 33, completed the program last year. He came to our meeting as if he were a star quarterback at an elite prep school long ago, on his way to give an inspirational speech to a youth group.

He wasn’t a point guard. He didn’t go to an elite prep school. He probably could have pitched to a youth group, but that doesn’t happen today either.

He told me he grew up in Western North Carolina and became addicted to methamphetamine and fentanyl at age 12. He spent most of the next 18 years addicted and homeless. He made sporadic attempts to break the addiction, but none of them worked; or maybe he just wasn’t in the right place at the right time. Maybe the bottom is a moving target.

Then some of his friends died and his older brother died too. It was the loudest wake-up call yet and he started a round of searching for help, but even then it wasn’t easy. After going through a few more programs, Rescue Mission in Charlotte He was sitting at a bus stop outside the supervising office in Hendersonville. A rescue ministry took him two hours to Charlotte.

He came to campus, he says, “with no home, no teeth, no hope, no future.” (Johnson says that’s an exaggeration: Carmack has three teeth, he says.)

After going through the rehabilitation program, she chose to work at the café. At first, she says, she was afraid of everyone and everything, like a wild animal. But while she learned to wash dishes, prepare vegetables and clear tables at the café, she also learned to be around people, take direction and receive praise.

It’s been about two years since he made that trip to Charlotte and he’s now in the Mission’s aftercare program. He has a job Hope Homes Recovery Resources She works as a recovery specialist in Charlotte. She recently helped people who were going through the same struggles she was. She often says she can see her past in them. And if all goes well, they can see their future in her.

The credit for every success story at Charlotte’s Central Rescue Mission—and not everyone succeeds—must go directly to the person themselves. They had to decide when it was time; they had to work; they had to slay demons and ignore temptations. Yet every person I spoke to credits their success to a number of entities, some spiritual, some earthly. As if they were the lucky recipients of a stroke of good fortune at just the right moment. Maybe that’s part of it, but none of it comes without their own effort.

But there are people who give them the tools for that success. And one that everyone singles out is the “chef.”

Johnson, 27, grew up in New Orleans — a fact evident on the menu — and started cooking at an art school there when he was 13. Emeril Lagasse helped fund the program, and Johnson quickly adapted to the militaristic discipline. He worked events as part of Lagasse’s crew and won a college scholarship from him.

Now that she is in charge of her own kitchen, she knows all eyes are on her and she leads with compassion.

“Everything I say and do affects the students,” he said. So tempers are balanced. There’s no swearing. Any mistake is seen first and foremost as a teaching opportunity.

“My father taught me to walk into a room and be a thermostat, not a thermometer,” he said. took his cues from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.) “Every time I come to this room (cafe), I will enter with joy and work as hard as I can.”

He also had the students’ backs, which might be new to most. The cafe doesn’t serve alcohol—obvious, right?—but one morning, a group of women brunching refused to follow this seemingly simple program and snuck in canned mimosas. Johnson called them out, then kicked them out.

Unlike in the kitchen, Johnson says, “I might have sworn a little bit.” He feigns embarrassment.

Johnson said what really upset him was what one of the women said as she escorted him to the exit: “Is it really that big of a deal?”

Yes. In fact – and as a matter of life and death – it absolutely is.