Albany cafe serves up second chances to people in recovery

Selina Blackburn, Dan Mullins, Peter Martin, Jess Drexler, Holly King and Jon Phelps gather for a staff photo inside JC’s Cafe. They say the goal of the cafe is to provide job opportunities for people recovering from addiction. (Rio Samaniego)

Hiring managers at Burger King refused to take a risk on Holly King.

She realized her history of drug use overshadowed her qualifications and sobriety, she said.

“What is the point?” King, 35, said. “I’m trying to be successful, and nobody wants to give me a chance.”

That was, until JC’s Cafe did.

The cafe King now manages hires people recovering from drug addiction and offers them another chance at professional life — something its employees often can’t find elsewhere.

The cafe’s owners saw firsthand how difficult it could be to find employment. Peter Martin and Jon Phelps opened JC’s Cafe in June in the Fusion Faith Center in Albany. JC stands for Jesus Christ. Inspirational religious messages and art adorn the walls of the cafe, and a Bible sits between the napkins and the sugar.

“I felt really discouraged and like I didn’t even want to try when I kept getting turned down,” King said. “That’s a really bad place to be.”

King wants to instill confidence in the employees she now hires.

“Encouraging people, giving them good self-esteem and letting them know that there are opportunities out there is super beneficial to recovery.”

In addition to co-owning the cafe, Martin, 49, also directs God Gear, a faith-based organization that runs nine recovery homes in Linn County. His previous struggles with addiction, in addition to his faith, motivated him to start a business that employs people recovering from drug addictions. He said recovery is about more than just confidence and self-worth.

“It’s also the opportunity to know that they can do things, be shown how to do things, and they can be productive members of society,” Martin said.

Providing employment opportunities to people in recovery can help them rebuild their lives, said Amelia Wyckhuyse, a peer support specialist at Communities Helping Addicts Negotiate Change Effectively, a nonprofit treatment center based in Albany. Wyckhuyse said it’s important for people to realize that people struggling with drug addiction and mental health can and do recover.

“I was a completely different person than I am today,” she said. “I was the girl holding the cardboard sign on the corner, strung out on drugs, living down by the river in a camp, and here I am today.”

Selina Blackburn was released from prison in April. The mother of four was once addicted to drugs and is now in recovery. She was granted parole after 43 months in prison and went to live at the Sparrow House, a women’s halfway house run by God Gear.

“When I first got out, it was just a culture shock, because you have structure and stability in prison,” Blackburn said. “You’re told what you have to do, when you have to get up, how your bed’s supposed to look, how you’re supposed to dress. So getting out here, it was just all a big adjustment.”

King, who also lived in Sparrow House, set Blackburn up with work as a cook at JC’s Cafe. The new job was yet another thing Blackburn had to adjust to, and that made her anxious.

“It’s overwhelming knowing that we’re starting something new,” Blackburn said.

But Blackburn also felt confident. She found camaraderie in sharing a common struggle and a common faith with her co-workers. This was vital to her recovery, Blackburn said.

“I’ve been through so much,” she said. “I know I probably would’ve relapsed if I didn’t have the support that I do now.”

The work experience is a crucial part of Blackburn’s bigger ambitions — she plans to go to college to become a drug and alcohol counselor. But for now, she’ll work here, behind a counter next to a sign that reads: “Be grateful, life is a gift.”

— Rio Samaniego, Thurston High School
— Vanessa Valencia-Lopez, Reynolds High School