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Discovery Cafe program quick to expand recovery services

Gabe Cohen, left, poses for a photo with Discovery Cafe staffers and members after a recovery circle meeting in March.
Gabe Cohen
Discovery Cafe
Gabe Cohen, left, poses for a photo with Discovery Cafe staffers and members after a recovery circle meeting in March.

The Discovery Cafe began operating at the Colorado Mountain College campus in Rifle in 2021.

Gabe Cohen is executive director of the program, which holds nonclinical support meetings called “recovery circles,” for substance abuse, homelessness, incarceration and other personal struggles.

He had no previous experience leading nonprofits before he started the program.

And since last year, it has ballooned.

Discovery Cafe has a new location in Basalt, where it is offering recovery circles in Spanish.

Cohen is also leading support meetings in the Rifle Correctional Center and the Garfield County Jail, and they’re training some inmates to become recovery coaches.

On Monday, Cohen spoke with "All Things Considered" anchor and reporter Halle Zander about the changes to the program, the process of recovery and his past experience with drug abuse and incarceration.

Gabe Cohen speaks at a wooden podium to a group of Rifle Correctional Center inmates lined up and wearing green scrubs during their GED graduation ceremony in August 2022
Discovery Cafe
Courtesy of Discovery Cafe
Gabe Cohen speaks to inmates at Rifle Correctional Center at their GED graduation ceremony in August.

Cohen: I am a person in recovery from cocaine addiction, a person that was in and out of the Colorado Department of Corrections seven different times. I was released from prison the last time in 2011 and came back to this valley. I was broke, homeless, 40 years old, stayed at the hostel in Glenwood and started my journey in recovery.

I didn't get it right away. In 2018, I overdosed on cocaine, and I realized I couldn't have one foot on either side of the fence. That led to me becoming a recovery coach. I saw a lot of the gaps in the system.

We launched the Discovery Cafe at the Colorado Mountain College in Rifle. We have what we call Recovery Circle support meetings. It's not just recovery from substances or drugs or alcohol. It can be recovery from anything: homelessness, mental health challenges, incarceration.

We like to say that we're all in recovery from something, or I like to think of us as a reservoir of resources, to help people get connected.

Zander: You started the Discovery Cafe in Rifle. Now, you’re in the Rifle Correctional Center and the Garfield County Jail. You’ve got a location in Basalt. It seems like you’re creeping farther upvalley over time. Are you seeing more demand in certain communities in the valley?

Cohen: There's people that struggle regardless of the demographic or the economic status of a person, you know, from people that are in the hospitality industry to the people coming here to party and have a good time and maybe get stuck. You know, overdose, suicide, mental health challenges, doesn't see county lines or bank accounts. I mean, we're all human.

Zander: Do recovery circles look different on the inside than they do on the outside?

Cohen: The structure is the same, but, you know, there's different challenges for the men and women when they're incarcerated. And there's actually differences between recovery circle meetings that I have in the county jail and the prison.

You get people fresh off the street still detoxing or withdrawing, or this is their first time in jail. Versus in the prison, one guy is getting out tomorrow. He's been down 11 years, you know, and the anxiety of getting out and what it's going to be like, dealing with my case manager, you hear all sorts of different things. It's a subculture in itself.

It's just different content, different events, let's say, that are happening within a prison or county jail versus Discovery Cafe at CMC or Basalt. But at the end of the day, dealing with anxiety, dealing with fears, dealing with insecurity, dealing with pride, dealing with addiction. I mean, the foundation — very similar.

Zander: What does it feel like to return to a jail or prison space since your own recovery?

Cohen: I reflected on it. I got choked up this past week in the prison and actually on Thanksgiving. It's been a long time since I spent a holiday incarcerated. And you could just see just their countenance on some of the guys faces that their heads were somewhere else. You know, they miss their families. It's a tough place.

You know, you got guys that wish they could be with their families on a holiday like that. They have friends within the facility that are getting special visits because it's a holiday, and they're not getting a visit.

Being back in there and being of service was one of the best Thanksgivings I've had in a long time. I had somebody in the recovery community say, you know, ‘You were in and out of the county jail so many different times and in and out of prison. Like, why would you want to go back?’ But like, those are my people.

I want to give guys hope. I want to let them know that you can do something different — that your past doesn't define your future. And I'm living proof of that.

Zander: Who’s one individual in RCC that you think is making really significant progress?

Cohen: You know, one example is a guy who had an issue with one of the COs, which is a correctional officer: an argument over a job task.

They asked them to do something … and they had an exchange of words. He used some profanity and he got written up, which means, you know, there could be consequences.

But he comes to the group, and he talks about it and talks about what happened and started talking to him about like, can we kill them with kindness? You know, do we have to use those words when we get upset? Can we see it from their perspective?

Then he was up for another job in the facility in the library. They came back to him and said he got some questions wrong because there was a test to see if he could work in there. And he pointed out that, in fact, they were wrong and that his answers were right. And he had worked previously in another prison in a library.

He brought it to them kindly. He now has a job in the library, and when they needed somebody to go into the different housing units, they needed an inmate worker that they could trust. And they called him specifically because of the work that he's doing in the library.

But he came to a group to share that the staff considers him trustworthy. Just six months ago, they saw him as a threat and were thinking about getting him off the yard, which means getting him to another prison.

These are the skills these guys need when they get out, and you can't start practicing it if no one's teaching you how to do it.

Zander: One other thing you’ve said in the past. Kings and priests ministries is the nonprofit behind Discovery Cafe. And Christianity is a big part of your life. Is there a Christian element to these recovery circles?

Cohen: We are not pushing a Christian agenda. It's not a religious space. It's not like a Bible study. It's not a faith-based group. Discovery Cafe and the recovery-circle meetings are strictly secular.

Having said that, everybody is welcome to share their truth and their lived experience. But I'm not in there to evangelize. God does come up in some of the conversations.

I have one guy that's an atheist who was getting mad when I said I'd pray for him, and he took that as an insult. And I didn't mean it as an insult. I meant it like it was coming from a place of love. And we had a really good, open conversation about why he feels the way he feels and I feel the way I feel. And that was within the group.

I think it's all about the approach. You know, I don't hide the fact about my faith or what I believe in.

 A young Gabe Cohen shows excitement in a pair of American flag pants after his release from the Pitkin County Jail in 1997.
Gabe Cohen
Courtesy Photo
Gabe Cohen shows excitement after his release from the Pitkin County Jail in 1997.

Halle Zander is a broadcast journalist and the afternoon anchor on Aspen Public Radio during "All Things Considered." Her work has been recognized by the Public Media Journalists Association, the Colorado Broadcasters Association, and the Society of Professional Journalists.