Spotlight Exclusives

Recovery Cafes Build Support in Rural Communities

Tara Kunkel Tara Kunkel, posted on

Sometimes, a path out of life’s challenges—whether it be substance abuse, food insecurity or financial struggles—can begin with something as simple as a conversation with another person. And to foster those connections, particularly in small towns and communities, the Reaching Rural initiative is experimenting with the use of Recovery Cafes—no cost, common spaces where residents can share a meal with others who are in recovery from something. Rulos Strategies is helping the initiative roll out the Recovery Cafes and Executive Director Tara Kunkel spoke with Spotlight recently about the new strategy. The transcript of that conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Why don’t we start with some background on your firm?

Rulos Strategies is a small, woman-owned, primarily criminal justice consulting company based in Arlington, Virginia. We started in 2020. I came out of the U.S Department of Justice and I started my company after leaving the federal grant making world, where I focused a lot on rural communities. When I was in the grant making world, I saw a lot of the same communities over and over and over getting grants. I saw rural communities not really applying and under-resourced communities not applying for grants. So when I started my company, I wanted a large part of my work to be reaching out to communities that don’t typically access federal funds and really making sure they knew they were available, to demystify the process and help them access those resources. And so, the Reaching Rural Initiative that the Recovery Cafe falls under, is a part of that work and the company’s work more broadly. Rulos Strategies focuses at the intersection of public safety, behavioral health, and public health. We do a lot of work in the substance use and behavioral health arena. So, that’s what we’re about.

Tell me how Recovery Cafes came about.

The Recovery Cafe initiative is part of a broader initiative, so I’ll start broadly with the Reaching Rural Initiative. The Reaching Rural Initiative is part of an inter-agency federal commitment to support rural communities as they respond to the overdose crisis that’s impacting all of America, but rural communities in particular. Traditionally, federal agencies respond to a community crisis with grant making. and as I mentioned previously, some rural communities don’t have the capacity to apply for a federal grant or they don’t feel like they can administer a federal grant, or they might not be looking for money. They just might be looking for more support in determining how to respond to people dying in their community due to intergenerational poverty and substance use and where those intersect.

They launched this initiative back in December of 2022 and there are three federal sponsors: CDC, which traditionally supports public health initiatives; the Bureau of Justice Assistance, which is primarily focused on our public safety and law enforcement; and the State Justice Institute, which is focused primarily on courts and judges. They came together to support these 12-month fellowships in rural communities. And over the 12 months, the goal is to build partnerships between behavioral health practitioners who work in rural communities, public health practitioners and public safety practitioners. Through a competitive process, we selected 67 rural practitioners from all over the country and they are halfway through their fellowship.

Two of the individuals in the cohort are actually working on Recovery Cafes. Mike Rentfro, who’s based in Indiana, has an operational recovery cafe. And then a couple of other fellows have been really inspired by his work and are trying to start a recovery cafe in their communities. At the heart of it, a recovery cafe is really much like your local coffee shop and what it serves to do, which is to build community. And then think about people who are struggling with any kind of addiction, whether it’s substance abuse or the mental health crisis. They are also looking for community as they go through their recovery process. The idea is that it’s a physical place where people who are trying to work through a process can go and find fellowship with people who are going through a similar process. They can have meetings together, talk with people, share a meal together, share a cup of coffee together, and find fellowship. There’s a network of Recovery Cafes throughout the country that are informally run by people who are in recovery and it’s a really exciting process and a place for people to find community and wellness.

And is there a connection between these cafes and 12-step programs, or not necessarily?

Not necessarily. The 12-step programs have traditionally been just substance use although they have evolved to address different issues, whereas recovery cafes may be substance use focused, but they also could be focused on different issues. It’s a broader concept of support and wellness. The Reaching Rural fellows have all chosen different projects; the idea is that over the 12 months, they have to really develop and shape that project over the time that they are with us. My company, along with our partner, the Institute for Intergovernmental Research, coach them over the 12 months. And for those who are focusing on Recovery Cafes, we’ve also taken them to rural communities that are really leaders in the substance abuse space, so they could be exposed to people that have really figured out how to leverage funding to build partnerships They’re being exposed to and building networks with successful rural communities, with federal partners, with people who can assist them. They’re learning how to write federal grants. They’re learning how to request assistance from private sector companies, from technical assistance providers. So, some have chosen recovery cafes, others have chosen different approaches.

Tell me some of the other ideas that have bubbled up from the fellows

I know your site thinks a lot about poverty, so it’s amazing how many are focused on the basic needs of people who can’t get well if their basic needs aren’t met. At least two fellows are focused on housing as a primary need. A project in Stevens County, Washington is focused on housing as is another effort in St. Louis County, Minnesota. The idea is how could we create a safe, drug-free place for people who want to pursue recovery to live so that they can attend treatment and pursue recovery, but also be safe at night.

A community in West Virginia is thinking a lot about transportation, also a very basic need. How can we get somebody to treatment if they have to travel, as in some of our rural communities, an hour or two hours? How do we build transportation, especially in a rural community that doesn’t have public transportation? How do we think about that issue? Can we build connections among people in recovery to provide transportation? Can we leverage federal funds to build off of our transport system in some way?

And going back to the Recovery Cafes, there’s lots of people thinking about how can I take people in recovery put them in our jails to help inspire people? That’s called peer recovery support. How can we build a bigger network of peer recovery support within our jails, within our probation departments, all the places where we want people build connections?

Who do these fellows tend to be?

They’re from all over the country, and that’s been very exciting to us. They come from public health, they come from behavioral health agencies, and treatment agencies. Some are county commissioners. Some people are participating in this as part of a multidisciplinary team and then some are participating as individuals. We have county commissioners, police officers, people who are working in jails, judges—all different walks of life. But I think what they share in common, besides living in a rural community, is a commitment to find solutions within the context of their specific communities.

And their communities are different from each other. Some live in larger rural communities, and some live in what they call “super-duper rural,” which is maybe a community of 22,000 where the distances are vast. But they all share a commitment to making the lives of people who are struggling with addiction better and better connecting their resources that they have. The reason we’re so focused on cross-sector collaboration is in rural communities, you just don’t have as many resources. They have to find ways to coordinate and collaborate and that’s what they’re dedicated to doing.

They’re all very busy, like all professionals. They have full-time jobs. But they are making time each month to set aside to this project. They participate in monthly phone calls. We’ve brought them together on site visits to go see different communities across the country. They’re all preparing for these very formal presentations in December that they’re going to be making. I’m really proud of what they’ve done.

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