HOpe Café serves more than coffee

New NV social enterprise offers opportunities for those who have experienced mental illness

As Jo-Anne MacDougall makes her daily commute across two bridges from her Surrey home to her new job in North Vancouver, she often glances at her ring finger, resting on the steering wheel.

There lies a tattoo of a butterfly, representative of her ability to once again spread her wings.

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The concept was inspired by a sign she noticed on a local church that read, “Just when the caterpillar thought his life was over, he became a butterfly.”

The message resonated strongly. “That (was) me. I thought my life was over. I had so many losses and so many changes,” she says.

Two and a half years ago, MacDougall received a shocking diagnosis.

A self-described “high-functioning perfectionist” who believed she “had it all together,” she found herself unable to keep working in the veterinary industry, and unable to leave the North Shore, her longtime home.

She was also suffering from a variety of physical ailments, mainly debilitating vertigo. After making many trips to the emergency room and undergoing countless tests — MRIs and CT scans included — doctors finally pinpointed the source of her worsening condition: anxiety.

MacDougall got her tattoo on the same day she attended an anxiety management group for the first time.

“I was a full-time mental wellness student for two years. I worked really hard on myself and . . . . thank goodness for the team of specialists that we have on the North Shore,” she says.

Today, MacDougall has never felt better or more free. Since her diagnosis, her stress is gone, and she no longer gets dizzy nor suffers any other physical ailments.

Her butterfly tattoo is a constant reminder of her journey, how far she’s come, and a reminder to be grateful for the support received along the way — from health professionals as well as supportive friends and family. In rare moments of unease, it’s there to help her feel grounded once more and ready to carry on.

“One of the reasons why I moved off the North Shore was because I could,” she says. “I couldn’t leave North Van for so long.”

She’s proud that commuting is so easy for her now, and also of what’s waiting for her at the end of her drive. MacDougall is the manager of the new North Vancouver HOpe Café, a social enterprise coffee shop intended to offer employment opportunities, and an inclusive and supportive work environment for people who have experienced mental illness.

The venture represents a unique partnership between a non-profit organization, a for-profit company and the public healthcare system.

Housed in the lobby of the newly opened Greta and Robert H.N. Ho Centre for Psychiatry and Education (known as the HOpe Centre), at Lions Gate Hospital, the HOpe Café is a Blenz Coffee location, is owned and operated by the Canadian Mental Health Association North and West Vancouver Branch, and is a partnership with Vancouver Coastal Health.

“The definition of a social enterprise is a for-profit business that has a social mission. If you just have a social mission and you don’t make a profit then it’s not a decent business, so it’s holding those two pieces together,” says Sandra Severs, executive director of the CMHA’s North Shore branch.

The café, which is open to the public, opened in early December 2014 as mental healthcare programming and services moved into the HOpe Centre. It had its official grand opening and ribbon cutting Jan. 15.

While avidly patronized by HOpe Centre and area medical staff, patients and visitors, all involved hope the café grows into a gathering place for the community at large.
Café profits will be reinvested back into the North Shore, used by the North and West Vancouver Branch of the CMHA to create other mental health programs, and to expand its local reach, providing needed support.

“For a small non-profit we’re in a very fortunate position to be with two partners like this who are committed to the vision of what this business can actually be and who have financially made it possible for us to do that,” says Severs.

The HOpe Café also provides a visual image of recovery. Through its mission, it’s working to fight stigma related to mental illness, exemplify the possibilities that exist for people with a history of mental illness, and serve as an ongoing source of encouragement for employees and patrons alike.

“We’re serving more than coffee,” says Severs.

 

 

• • •

When asked what role a job can play in the life of someone in recovery from a mental illness, Vancouver Coastal Health’s April Watson is quick to answer.

“It provides structure, it provides self-esteem, it provides that foundation of meaningfulness in your life,” she says.

Watson and co-worker Gill Walker, a fellow occupational therapist on the rehabilitation team at North Shore Adult Community Mental Health and Addictions, currently housed in the HOpe Centre, came up with the idea for the HOpe Café.

They have firsthand experience with the challenge of finding jobs for their clients, as well as employers willing to hire them. The rehab team has a vocational counsellor who helps clients to find jobs, offering support to both the employee and employer throughout the process to ensure the job is successful.

Examples of local employers who’ve hired their clients include Compass Group Canada, Prosource Property Services and Starbucks. Red Dog Deli and Meridian Farm Market are currently looking at ways to support the program. The rehab team is always in need of additional employers to come on board with their program.

“We saw that this could be an opportunity to provide more jobs and more support,” says Watson, rehab team supervisor.

“We wanted to break down stigma for starters, bring the community together and provide opportunities. It’s very difficult to obtain employment sometimes for people with mental illness so we’re trying to break down those barriers and provide a supportive and safe opportunity to make this happen,” she adds.

After hearing about the plans for the HOpe Centre, a 150,000-square-foot, four-storey mental health services centre that houses North Shore inpatient and outpatient psychiatric care, the Djavad Mowafaghian UBC Medical Education Centre and B.C. Ambulance, Watson and Walker began investigating the possibility of opening a social enterprise café.

They sought approval from Vancouver Coastal Health management, started a steering committee and went so far as to take social enterprise courses through the Enterprising Non-Profits B.C. Program.

They realized very quickly the importance of partnerships and so reached out to the North Shore branch of the CMHA. The local branch also has experience with the challenge of placing people with mental illness in jobs through its programs.

It didn’t take a lot of convincing to get the service agency on board. Such a venture would mean they’d no longer have to search for jobs, they’d be able to create them for themselves, says Severs.

“What we would be then doing is modelling to other employers on the North Shore that it was possible to hire people with mental health challenges and create a business that was viable,” she says.

With Vancouver Coastal Health providing the space for $1 a year as well as equipment, and a willing owner/operator, all that was needed was a coffee company to come on board.

Shawn Pattison, vice-president of Blenz, said while his company is no stranger to charitable and sponsorship arrangements, they’ve never been involved in such a large-scale initiative. They were intrigued by the opportunity, which represents a number of firsts for the business.

“We’d never actually been involved with mental health. We’d never been involved with certainly a social enterprise project like this where it was going to directly be run, managed and almost used as an environment for people to get better or to reintegrate. . . . So that was interesting for us. . . . We can’t really quantify it, projects like this. There’s no return on investment that you can identify. There is no traditional metric that you can say, ‘Well, we’ll put in this and we’ll get this.’ But in our group, one thing we did identify was that it was good — it was a good thing. That was enough for us to feel that it was important for us to get involved,” he says.

Pattison said it’s not uncommon for a coffee shop or food service company to go into a medical facility. Blenz itself has locations in some — for example, at Surrey’s Jim Pattison Outpatient Care and Surgery Centre — but this partnership is something else entirely.

“We’re all involved, we’re all as one family in this,” he says.

The relationship between Blenz and the CMHA is a typical franchiser and franchisee arrangement. However, Blenz offered some additional support, including waiving its training costs and franchise fee. Employee wages are standard with the coffee shop industry.

The HOpe Café has proven profitable thus far.

“I think it’s doing well for the first month in a new building with holiday season happening at the same time. We’ve been pleased,” says Severs.

Pattison agrees. “The sales have been good. I would say they’ve been very encouraging. They’ve also been growing, which is very good. Overall, certainly Blenz is happy,” he says.

• • •

“Anybody coming in off the street wouldn’t necessarily know that we have lived experience,” says MacDougall, 46.

After spending two years in the community mental health system on the North Shore undergoing individual and group therapy, she no longer requires any services. “I don’t feel that I have a mental illness because I’ve been so mentally well since I’ve had a diagnosis. I was mentally ill before but then receiving therapy and the counselling and all of the core group support, I think I’m very mentally well compared to struggling every day,” she says.

The HOpe Café operates as a typical Blenz and employs a total of five staff ranging in age from 27 to 46. MacDougall is in the process of hiring two more baristas.

Her team is incredibly passionate about their jobs, their products, their customers, supporting each other and being part of a social enterprise.

“We want to be the go-to place. We want people just to say, ‘I’ll see you at Blenz, we’ll see you at the HOpe Café,’” she says.

All partners — Blenz, the CMHA and Vancouver Coastal Health — are impressed by the calibre of the café employees, their professionalism and commitment to positive customer service.

“If you come in for coffee in the morning and you’re rude to us, how do I know how much effort it took for you to get out of bed? Everybody has their own story. We don’t judge anybody. Not only are we an inclusive work environment, we want to be an inclusive community café. We don’t judge people on their mental wellness or anything,” says MacDougall.

People in recovery have to have a lot of patience with themselves, explains 29-year-old HOpe Café barista Matt Mazzei, who has bipolar disorder.

“The patience, it extends to our clientele who come here. It’s not just the clients who come here, it’s also their families. Understanding what the families go through as well as the clients is a big part in making that connection regarding compassion and care . . . . Giving the open ear to the clientele is something that we find they’re really responsive to,” he says.

In addition to offering compassion, the HOpe Café employees are also an important model of hope, says Pattison. Their success is inspirational for patients coming in to the HOpe Centre for services, as well as family members there supporting them.

“There is hope in the fact that they can see that where they’re at right now, there is a place for them to go. . . . There is a light at the end of the tunnel. It’s actual, it’s real, it’s not just talking about it, it’s not just a spreadsheet or a flowchart or a bunch of dates on a calendar,” he says.

Employees stay mindful of themselves and each other. “I said to these guys when I hired and interviewed them and did orientation: When you’re having a bad day, I get it. I understand. I haven’t had a bad day for a very long time but that didn’t come easy. I had to work very hard at that as do these guys, every day,” says MacDougall.

While the venture conforms to B.C. Employment Standards and those of Blenz Coffee, it doesn’t have the same sort of structured work environment as coffee shops do. They have some leeway, for example, in determining hours per week and per shift.

“We don’t have structured breaks, because if Matt needs a time out, he wants to go for a walk, Matt goes for a walk,” says MacDougall.

Lines of communication are strong and as a result, stress levels remain low.

“Sometimes you’re going to have a rough day. That’s why it’s so great to have supportive people who understand you, especially in work, because we can all support each other. If you have that kind of up day, you can lend a hand, and if you need a little extra slack, then there’s people who can pick up and help you out,” says Mazzei.

• • •

In addition to their experience with mental illness, something MacDougall and Mazzei quickly realized they had in common were tattoos on their ring fingers.

His tattoo depicts his name in Runes, as well as a moon and stars. It speaks to the idea that anything is possible, protection, the importance of speaking authentically and the power of oneself. He got it four years ago and it’s a constant reminder of what he’s capable of and to “shoot for the moon.”

The North Vancouver resident was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at age 20 during his second year of university. “It was quite shocking. . . . When you first get diagnosed it’s very difficult. It’s hard on the family because they’ve seen problems for a while and you’ve been in denial a lot of the time. Then you get diagnosed and . . . you feel alone,” he says.

Like MacDougall, Mazzei remains committed to his wellness. “Every day is recovery now for me. I don’t know if there’s going to be a day that I’m not in recovery. . . . You have to just stay in that mode of understanding yourself,” he says.

Mazzei has been experiencing a number of positives steps forward in his life as of late. After living in a series of group homes, he recently moved into more independent assisted living.

His new job at the HOpe Café is just more icing on the cake. “There’s a grand opening here, but my life has just had a grand opening as well,” he says.

Reflecting on his journey, he too is proud of how far he’s come and is grateful to have a job, allowing him to keep working toward his future.

“It keeps me very positive, very confident and it makes me feel like I can reach my goals. I think it would be a great step for people who get into the workforce to have such an environment that they’re used to and people who care about them,” he says.

For Mazzei, his future definitely feels bright and like it’s inching closer. He’s just waiting to see what it might hold. “I’m trying to find something that’s really right for me. I know it’s within my grasp. I’m hoping this place can help me reach it. It’s unlabelled at the moment,” he says.

The HOpe Café, located in the HOpe Centre at 1337 St. Andrews Ave., is open seven days a week, Monday to Friday, 7 a.m.-5 p.m., and weekends, 9 a.m.-4 p.m.

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