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Care Cafe

I was tired and weary. Bright fall days turned to bitter rainy ones that pushed beads of cold water down my neck and into the seams of my shoes. Every day I commuted on a crowded train under bright fluorescent lights that made my inevitable headache worse. On top of having a demanding job, the presidential election was in full swing and I was bombarded by contentious news that on most days felt assaultive. I knew I needed to address the weariness that had settled in my bones. I took long walks in the woods, baked muffins, bought new shoes, opened a nice bottle of red wine. But nothing helped. And I carried my fatigue around like a rock on my shoulders.

“Even the smallest tender mercy can bring peace
when recognized and appreciated.”
— Richelle E. Goodrich, Smile Anyway

And then two things happened.

The first was that I began to observe daily kindnesses around me, especially on my commute. Courteous men and women gave up their seats on the train, hands pulled a stroller or a bicycle onboard. Travelers held open heavy doors for others to pass through. Cabbies at a red light opened their wallets to the homeless. Strangers exchanged pleasantries on an elevator or the street.

These small acts of kindness and courtesy for a few seconds transformed strangers into a community of human beings pulling together. Observing these acts of kindness, participating in them, was the antidote to my weariness.

The second was an article I read about Repair Cafes. Maria Potsma in Amsterdam began a crusade to keep household appliances from the landfill by starting cafes where anyone could bring a broken toaster or blender and work with an expert to repair it. These cafes became popular not just for the benefit of a repaired appliance but also for the sharing and community. I read this and wondered, “Wouldn’t it be great if we had cafes to repair a broken heart or refresh a weary spirit?”

“One of the most important things you can do on
this earth is to let people know they are not alone.”
— Shannon L. Alder

I contemplated this question on my commute. What would a café devoted to repairing the fissures in our lives or healing the invisible wounds that we all have, look like? Does mental health intervention need to be delivered in private 50 minute sessions behind a closed door or could it be delivered through “pop up” shared interest communities facilitated by an expert? What if, as each speaker intentionally educated and informed their audience, they intentionally left them with hope?

A few months later, Care Cafe was born, sponsored by the Wurzweiler School of Social Work and with the help and support of New York City Councilmen Eric Ulrich and Ydanis Rodriguez, both of whom saw the potential in our idea and believed in our ability to touch and heal people’s pain. Dr. Katherine Mitchell, Assistant Professor at Wurzweiler, agreed to head the project. She recruited a staff of eager and dedicated MSW students who helped organize and run the cafes. Not only would they would attend the cafes and talk with guests, but they would provide researched resources about each topic.

We began to identify topics and look for spaces. Our first and most eager partners were the Jamaica Queens Library and Riverside Memorial Chapel. Both institutions saw human needs that their leaders were eager to address. And we listened to our community partners, social service providers, local politicians, veterans’ groups, clergy and community advocates, talk about the issues they confronted. Suicide prevention, loss and mourning, infertility, chronic doubt, depression, resiliency, how to raise healthy kids, reintegration assistance and addictions were issues our cafes would take on.

“It was as if hope had appeared out of nowhere to settle beside
her and it wasn’t going anywhere, it wasn’t going to desert her now.”

― Alice Hoffman

Viva White

And then the first cafe, at Riverside Memorial Chapel, happened. In a cozy room with cafe tables and a light dinner, our students chatted with guests and offered packets of resources. We learned about addictions from Viva White, a doctoral student at Wurzweiler, whose work is helping people through some of the most challenging experiences in their lives. She was captivating, enthusiastic, and engaging. She spoke from her perspective as a social worker with over 20 years of experience. She offered hope and the importance of focusing on and living in each moment.

When her talk was over, people did not leave: a pop-up community had come to life. Students opened folders for people who asked questions. Guests and students shared their own experiences, challenges and stories. At 8:30, the evening ended and no one really wanted to leave.

My “take away” from the evening was this. While pop-up communities emerge spontaneously, their impact is lasting; they provide a powerful and transformative experience where a room full of strangers become fellow travelers and no matter what the issue one realizes that we are not alone in our struggles, our humiliations, our triumphs and our humanness. While we are used to experiencing community defined by our neighborhood, workplace, family, ethnic group, or religion, we can also experience a powerful sense of community and belonging and hopefulness around issues that mark our humanness. This is enormously comforting. This is also enormously important for a school of social work to take on.

At Wurzweiler School of Social Work, we not only teach our students the importance of community involvement and the power of transformation– we offer them a way to practice it. This kind of outreach and involvement in the health of our communities is our mission and we have been doing it through our exceptional education, practice and outreach for over 60 years.

Weeks later I revisited that evening in my mind marveling at the speaker’s stories, relishing the soft lighting of the cafe and the chance to share an experience with others. Not only had that evening been another antidote to weariness but the comfort has lasted, and I can’t wait until the next cafe.