TRANSFORMING HEALTH – Steve Shickram can trace his struggle with substance abuse back to his days as an engineering student at University of Pennsylvania.
He drank — a lot, at times. So much, in fact, a doctor warned him he risked damaging his liver. He stopped for a while, and managed to keep his life together until his 30th birthday. After close friend died unexpectedly, Shickram returned to the bottle.
“I went from alcohol and then cocaine and then crystal meth,” the 39-year-old said. “Crystal meth really stopped the B.S. going on in my head for a short period of time. But then it didn’t. Then it got worse. It was just a cycle until you fall and hit rock bottom.”
After rock bottom, Shickram managed to get clean through a 12-step program and a lot of effort.
That’s where Hope & Coffee in Tamaqua, Schuylkill County, came into his life. When Shickram was about 200 days clean, the coffee house gave him a job as a barista. Just as importantly, it gave him a place to spend time with others who are in recovery.
The business is the brainchild of Lisa Scheller, who has had her own battle with heroin, and knows first-hand the importance of having a community for people in recovery.
Scheller and her family run a paint pigment-making company, Silberline Manufacturing, which is a major employer in the borough. In 1982, she went into treatment for heroin addiction. Five years later and clean, Scheller moved from Colorado back to Tamaqua and started working in the family business.
As the years passed, and as prescription opioids became easier to get, she noticed a growing number of people were struggling with addiction in the region.
Scheller said she realized for those who were ready to get clean, there weren’t enough support groups. Only four meetings were scheduled per week in the borough.
“And meetings were part of the foundation of my recovery, and it suggested you go to 90 meetings in 90 days in early recovery,” Scheller said. “And with Tamaqua having four meetings…that simply wasn’t possible.”
When Scheller saw a dilapidated Victorian house on one of the town’s most highly-trafficked streets, she had the idea to open a coffee house that welcomes those who are in recovery. She would also staff it with people in recovery. To date, she’s invested about $250,000 in turning the house into a hub for the community.
Like many Pennsylvania communities, Tamaqua was formed around industries that have long since faded away. The borough flourished during the early 1800s as an anthracite coal producer. By the 1960s, the industry was in decline. These days, about 7,000 people live in the area, which has seen its share of opioid addiction.
As of September, 55 people died from overdoses this year in Schuylkill County, according to deputy coroner John Mika. That puts the 145,000 person county on track for one of its deadliest years for overdoses.
Where other recovery services end, Hope & Coffee is filling the need, Scheller said.
For former drug users who may struggle to find work due to criminal records, it’s also a meeting point to learn about who is hiring, said coffee shop manager Loren Collura.
Like other employees, Collura is in recovery. She emphasized the coffee house welcomes all people.
“We do have employees that are on medically-assisted treatment,” she said. “We have those on Schuylkill county drug court program. We have people that just attend meetings. We also have people that don’t attend meetings. We try to be open, as long as you’re not using, and as long as you’re focused on the betterment of yourself and the people that walk in this door.”
In an area with few options for espresso-based coffee drinks, people have welcomed the new addition, Collura said. “A lot of the people we get in here are simply curious. We don’t have a lot of coffee shops in here with really good coffee, so that’s a plus. A lot of people are really looking for that.
The renovation work is also being done by people in recovery. Fifty-five-year-old Stephen Kulha has been sober for 17 years.
“We’re learning to live in reality,” Kulha said. “You just need to learn a new way of life, because our brains were so addicted to doing things a certain way, and now that we’re sober we’re learning how to deal with reality.”
Kulha sponsors others who are trying to get sober.
“Many times I will get people that will call me and say ‘Hey, Steve, I feel like drinking.’ And I say, ‘Hey, I’m coming to pick you up… let’s go for a cup of coffee.’ While you’re sitting there talking to them, usually that thought that was going through their head will go away, because they’re with somebody else in recovery to help them get through that thought.”