Bridging the Opportunity Divide

Eat Lunch, Help the Mentally Ill

December 2, 2014
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Eat Lunch, Help the Mentally Ill
Employees gather for a morning meeting at Cafe 54 Thomas Shomaker
"People are resilient, and they need that sense of purpose."

If you’re ever in Tucson, Ariz., you can dine on American comfort food with a side of social change at Café 54.

Since 2004, the downtown nonprofit bistro has won accolades from the local press for its cuisine, while also assisting more than 250 adults with behavioral health issues.

Founded by executive director Mindy Bernstein, whose previous work also focused on vocational rehabilitation, Café 54 trainees are paid for their work as they gain valuable vocational skills in food preparation, cooking, retail and service. Some of the common challenges among employees are depression, anxiety and the often-intertwined affliction of substance abuse. Trainees graduate from the program after as little as three or as many as nine months.

Of course, work is never served without stress and having a restaurant largely run by individuals recovering from behavioral health issues comes with challenges. Despite this, Café 54’s program manager, Orlando Montes, says that for most of the trainees, symptoms decrease as they acclimate to their positions.

“Jobs are stressful,” says Montes. “Jobs are demanding, jobs require us to get up in the morning and show up. And people are resilient, and they need that sense of purpose.”

Not everyone finishes the program, however. Some relapse with drugs or alcohol, others have complications with medications and symptoms, while some simply aren’t ready for a work environment. Of the 60 percent who see their vocational training through, about half obtain subsequent work in the private market. In the run-up to graduation, Café 54 job coaches assist them with job placement, should they want to continue working.

Café 54’s primary financial support comes from the Community Partnership of Southern Arizona. It also subsists on private donations and revenue generated by its lunchtime operation. This later source of funding has steadily grown, making expansion possible. Just this year, the first Café 54 food truck hit the streets of Tucson.

It’s not just patrons that reap the benefits of the eatery, as it improves society as a whole, as people with mental illnesses who are functional and stable are far less likely to incur medical expenses or put themselves and others in dangerous situations.

So on your travels in the Great Southwest, consider dining at Café 54. Your stomach — and your heart — will thank you.

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