On Solid Grounds

As the singing Christmas tree next to the cash register slogs through its third rendition of "Jingle Bells," Robbin O'Donley stops pouring coffee long enough to gleefully pull the plug. "That thing's starting to drive me crazy," she says, then pauses. "Oops, too late," the 34-year-old cackles. "I'm already crazy!"

She's not the only one. The fact is, nearly every employee of the Good Company Coffee Shop has mental problems, and so do many of the customers. They're not trying to hide it, either. "Oh, we make jokes about it all the time," says O'Donley, who came to work at the coffee shop four months ago after completing a twelve-week work program through Aurora Mental Health that put her on medication to level her chemically imbalanced brain. "It helps that we all pretty much know where each other's been and what we're going through, with medications and therapy and everything. So no one here's gonna give us any hassles."

A joint effort between Aurora Mental Health and Aurora Public Schools--which sends over both its special-education students and its at-risk youth from the Alternative Center--the coffeehouse is a stepping stone for mentally ill patients who are looking to re-enter society, as well as high school students living with such disorders as cerebral palsy, Down's syndrome and mental retardation. "They're supposed to be working toward dealing with the so-called normal world," says Good Company manager Debby Hoffman. "And there just aren't that many places where they can do that without feeling completely insecure or incompetent, especially when they're being measured against people who aren't dealing with mental issues or severe illnesses. So we offer a safe place for them to work and to make friends with people who know where they're coming from."

Where Brenda Bills is coming from, even she's not sure. "Listen, I've been around; I've done some crazy things," says the 39-year-old former Aurora Mental Health client and current Good Company volunteer. "I, well, I act inappropriately. I exhibit inappropriate behavior sometimes, and I'm working on it. Sometimes I get really mad, like when I tell someone to go to hell. That's not the right thing to say." Bills went to AMH on her own to get help for her mental illness, but she credits the coffee shop with furthering her progress. "Sometimes I come in here and I'm all strung out on stress, and I'm having a bad day," confides Bills, whose scarred face reveals the toll her mental instability has taken on her body. "I know I look rough, and that's okay. Debby here loves me, anyway. She gives us work to do, and we work hard for her, and for ourselves. You wouldn't believe the things these mental-health people used to put us crazies through, the experimental shit they laid on us. But this place offers us crazies a place to be ourselves."

At the same time, the coffee shop serves as an informal drop-in center, a referral service for drug addicts and alcoholics, and a haven for anyone who needs help. "We don't hand out more than one free meal to a person off the streets or loan anyone money," says Hoffman. "But anyone who needs support or needs to find out where to go for help, they can come in here and we'll get them where they need to go."

Since Good Company is located at 9875 East Colfax Avenue--tucked in with a bunch of pawnshops, the Nappy Edges Beauty Salon, Living Water Christian Hair Designs, the K-Fashion Mart and a job-placement center--that happens quite a bit. "Despite the location, we've had very few real altercations," says Jan Raskin, dean of students for Aurora Public Schools' Alternative Center and Hoffman's boss. "Occasionally we get a few alcoholics and homeless people who make some noise, but they usually don't want to be in such a public place. And people like Robbin and the other employees have conveyed to the street that we have high hopes for those who come to us for help. It's not okay to just hang out here. We want a commitment. We have high expectations."

Even so, Raskin adds: "I've never seen Debby turn anyone away. As long as they're not threatening violence or being obnoxious, Debby puts her arms around them and talks to them. People who have mental difficulties that the average person would be repulsed by, Debby embraces."

It's noon on a weekday, and self-described "beatnik bongo poet" Rick McKinney is hard at work at the coffee shop, half of which has been painted in the not-so-soothing colors of pinkish-orange and purple. "I have a monster side, a hot temper," McKinney says. "I did some things once, and they put me in jail. I'm Aurora Mental Health client number 5, which means I was there from the beginning. In 1976, when they first started. So I'm very familiar with what they've been trying to do since then to make us all fit in with the rest of the world."  

Although McKinney doesn't like to talk about what put him in prison, he has a lot to say about the experimental side of mental-health treatment. "You wouldn't believe the things they used to do to us because they didn't know what the heck to do with us," he recalls. "I'm 41 years old now, and from the time I was 13, they were trying to fix what's wrong with my head, which they used to diagnose as purely schizophrenic, which led them to putting me on the wrong medication for twenty years. Then they finally paired the schizo with bipolar disorder, and that made so much more sense. But imagine being on the wrong medication for twenty years."

Once he started taking the right medications, though, it became clear that McKinney had something to offer. He started working as a consumer advocate--AMH calls its clients "consumers," much to the irritation of many of the "consumers" themselves--for Behavioral Health Inc., which allows him to help other mentally ill people work their way through the system. "I'm employed by BHI as an independent contractor," McKinney explains. "It's helped me develop networking skills and computer skills. And that knowledge has made it possible for me to help the coffee shop."

BHI is a federal watchdog agency that oversees the distribution of Medicaid funds for mental-health facilities in Arapahoe, Adams and Douglas counties. BHI also pays the rent and utilities on the Good Company Coffee Shop. "We've promised BHI that we'll provide vocational services for the clients at AMH," says manager Hoffman. "And so their clients come to us for six weeks of work, where they get a stipend, and if that works out, then they work six more weeks at part-time pay. And then if that works out, they're ready for the real world." Since Hoffman came on board last March, Good Company has helped twenty AMH clients re-enter the real world. In addition, thirty special-ed students have gone on to other jobs, and six expelled APS students have fulfilled their community-service work by volunteering at the coffee shop.

Theoretically, the profits--which come from the sale of sandwiches and baked goods, a growing catering business and a gift shop full of goods made by people who frequent the place--go toward other employees' salaries (Hoffman is paid by Aurora Public Schools) and maintaining inventory. The profits are also supposed to pay for redecorating the coffee shop, as well as repairs. "The only problem is, we really haven't made a profit yet," says Hoffman. "But we're getting close."

Until they get there, the shop is relying on corporate and individual donations. Volunteers have given countless hours painting the walls, doing carpentry jobs, and even playing music Friday nights. The coffee shop has also collected $10,000 in cash donations; Marriott Hotels offered up the plush carpet from one of its ballrooms. "Oooh, I love this carpet," says O'Donley, who likes to dance across it whenever she's not making sandwiches or whipping up lattes. "I'll bet we have the nicest carpet of any coffee shop in town."

O'Donley is what Hoffman calls "my resident Mary Sunshine," a perky woman whose wide grin belies a past filled with drug and alcohol abuse, misdiagnosed bipolar disorder and the court-ordered loss of the custody of her children. The only time her smile wanes is when she talks about her kids, whom she hopes to get back as soon as she's been able to prove herself at the coffee shop. "I'd never been able to keep a job for more than two months before I came here," O'Donley says. "I couldn't handle the stress of work, even unbelievably easy jobs, and if there was a crisis, look out. And I'd always fought my medications. But after being hospitalized in Chicago, where I came from, I bottomed out and just got on a train to come here. A friend convinced me to come to Denver, but when I arrived, I was a mess. I wound up at Aurora Mental Health, and they put me back on track. I take my meds all the time now, and that helps a lot."

And O'Donley has gotten so good at handling Good Company's daily crises--such dilemmas as equipment failure during business hours, pushy customers looking for handouts and general mayhem during the lunch rush--that Hoffman hired her after her twelve weeks were up. "She was so superb at this job that we just couldn't let her go," says Hoffman. "So she keeps the coffee shop running and takes care of training clients, and she also works with the students who come in from Aurora Public Schools. Talk about being able to handle stress--she's got kids who people just want to push into a corner and ignore working the cash register and carrying coffee to customers."  

Pamela Robey, a seventeen-year-old student at Aurora Central High School, has Turner's syndrome, which is a chromosomal disorder, and cerebral palsy, and she suffers from periodic seizures. Although she's confined to a wheelchair (not the electric one she desperately needs, because her parents can't afford it--but a serviceable one that keeps her completely dependent upon others to move her around), she still has the use of her hands. And it's those hands that Debby Hoffman needs in her coffee shop. "Pammy comes in every week, and she fills the sugar bowls and separates the silverware, and she puts the straws in the containers," says Hoffman. "Now, by most people's standards, that's not too exciting, but the bottom line is, I need that stuff done, and somebody has to do it."

And so throughout the week, a succession of Aurora special-needs classes, each with three to ten students, comes in and does it. Katie Dunlap, a cheerful seventeen-year-old and relatively high-functioning student from Central, cleans the bathrooms and wipes off the tables, waters the plants, makes cookies, loads the potato-chip rack and brings customers coffee refills. Joann Wood, a twenty-year-old senior from Rangeview High School, does the dishes, cooks hotdogs and greets everyone who walks through the door, sometimes greeting the same person five or six times. And Nathan Larsen, a twenty-year-old student from Gateway who wants to hold everyone's hands and hug them, sometimes at the same time, does the laundry and fixes salads.

Their parents love the coffee shop and what it's done for their kids. Joann's mother, Linda Wood, says she's hoping her daughter's work there will land her a job in the food industry, perhaps cooking in a nursing home. "She's very health-oriented," Wood says. "Very interested in people's ailments, and she loves it here, doing the work that she does. It's like home to her. So this really could lead to something that will enable her to hold a permanent job."

Pammy's mother says there's no question that her daughter benefits from working at Good Company. "Pammy tries so hard to do the same things at home that she does there," says Carolyn Robey. "She hardly ever talks, but when she comes home on Wednesdays, we ask her if she went to work, and she gets so animated and excited." And while Robey concedes that Pammy will never live on her own, she says the time her daughter spends at the coffee shop is crucial. "The doctors told me Pammy wouldn't live 24 hours," Robey says. "Don't you tell me she made it seventeen years and I'm just gonna let her sit around like she's nothing. She's a person, a beautiful person, and she is entitled to a life."

"Many of these kids are part of a transition program that helps them get ready for adulthood," says Mary Overton, a teacher with the Life Skills program at Central who comes to the coffee shop with the students. "And while they do work and get those skills--and they actually work at a couple of different jobs to find something they have an aptitude for--it's really the social interaction that's so meaningful. It's so rare that they have a public place to go where everyone is so accepting of them and non-judgmental."

As if on cue, Katie gently awakens Pammy from a catnap. "Hey, you," she prods. "You can't fall asleep. You didn't work that hard today." Pammy looks over at Katie and smiles. "The Broncos are going all the way," Katie tells her, pointing to her Bronco jersey. "All the way."

As far as Jan Raskin knows, there's nothing like the Good Company Coffee Shop in Colorado--or anywhere else in the country, for that matter. "We get people calling from Adams and other counties, and I've even heard from other states, wanting to know how it's going and picking our brains for ideas on how to get their own coffeehouses going," says Raskin, a former police officer who's worked for Aurora Public Schools for 24 years and also serves on the AMH board. "They want us to pin down a program for them, and the truth is, the fact that it doesn't have a defined structure is what I think makes it work. APS hasn't forced us to define the program, and frankly, that's great. You start putting round people into square pegs and you're going to have trouble."

But the program at Good Company seems to fit almost everyone, as long as they're willing to work. "We're not here to give people an excuse to drop out of life," Raskin continues. "We've done some amazing things, like the time we got a blind girl working on a Braille cash register, and the woman in a reclining wheelchair who cut flowers to put in vases. People kept saying, 'They won't be able to do those things,' and we said, 'Bullshit.'"  

It was that attitude that put Raskin pretty much in charge of the fledgling enterprise two years ago. In 1993 a group of businesspeople who owned the shop, then called the Daily Perc, sold it to Aurora Mental Health, which made it a drop-in clinic named the Community Connections Sheltered Anchorage. "So AMH was doing this drop-in thing, and then the public schools contracted to run the coffee shop in the front as part of its life-transition programs," explains Raskin. "Well, that was a disaster. So AMH decided to move their drop-in center, and the school negotiated to stay in the space two years ago. But until this past March, when Debby came on, there was only an interim manager, and things were not going well. There was no structure at all, and it was pretty chaotic, to say the least."

Raskin had been advertising for a manager for six months before she met Hoffman. "I almost didn't interview her," Raskin admits. "We'd already posted that position three times and hadn't found anyone that satisfied what we needed, and Debby didn't really have the background we were looking for, at least not on paper. And that day, I had no one else to help do the interview with me, and since I don't like making these decisions alone, I almost canceled it. But she came in, and rather than an interview, I'd say we had a conversation. I got the essence of what Debby was about, and rather than her background or her skills, her basic human philosophy is what made me realize she was perfect for the job."

At one point during their chat, Hoffman insisted that "she didn't want to be just 'counter help.'" Raskin laughs. "I told her that there was going to come a day when she was going to wish that was all she was. But I'll tell you what: She makes that coffee shop."

When Debby Hoffman emerges from the back of the shop--she and some of the APS students' parents are creating a conference room there--to take a break out front, four people converge upon her. She distractedly smooths back her straight, faintly graying, ever-present ponytail, adjusts her big round glasses, and looks each person who needs her in the eye, one at a time. The first is O'Donley, who has a question about the cabbage sandwich, a funky recipe that Hoffman brought from her native Nebraska. Louise Archuleta, who cooks at Good Company, just wants to touch base. She's about to find a job in the real world--a remarkable recovery since her abusive husband, who hooked her on drugs and made her feel like "a piece of human garbage," Archuleta says, died of a drug overdose last year.

The third person is Brenda Bills's mom, who decorates clothing for the gift shop. "My daughter called me last night and told me to go to hell," she says. "I told her I don't deserve to be talked to like that." Hoffman shakes her head in sympathy. "No, you're right," she tells Brenda's mom. "But I hope you stuck in there with her." The woman nods, then adds, "God almighty, though, it's definitely been worse." Hoffman hugs her and turns to the fourth person, who's been yelling her name from across the room. It's McKinney, who needs her to approve some advertising fliers he's printed. "Those look great," she says. He beams. "I'm almost as good at the computer as I am at cooking and being a beatnik bongo poet, huh?" he calls as Hoffman calmly heads toward the next person who needs her.

"This is not about me," Hoffman insists later. The 48-year-old mother of five, ages 14 to 29, and grandmother of five says she spends every day in awe of the people who pass through the Good Company Coffee Shop. "The trauma that some of these people have gone through--it's amazing that they're still alive," she says. "Ordinary things that we 'normal' people go through, it devastates them. For instance, we're dealing with the flu right now. The flu screws their meds up, and it puts them in an ugly place. But I'm astounded at their stamina. If we had to deal with what they do, we wouldn't even be able to get out of bed in the morning. I mean, they're so fragile, so easily hurt, yet they come back at life and fight so hard. I tell you, I look at these businesspeople who are so smug and know they do everything right--these people who are so together. They have missed it all. They have really just missed it all."  

Hoffman usually refers to her co-workers as "fractured" rather than mentally ill. "I really believe that these are behaviors, you know," she says. "These things that they do, acting out from their mental problems, are not who the people are. It's just how they act. And sometimes, honestly, I see them almost trapped by what they never received as children. Now, I don't treat them as children, but I love them. I love people that are broken; I don't care if it's the mayor or the street people."

They love her back, too. "She's unique," says Archuleta. "She just gives you this really concerned look and says, 'Can you help me with this?' and then she makes you feel good about yourself, and then you don't have the heart to say no."

That's one of the reasons she hired Hoffman, Raskin says. "She's kind of a magnet for people. People want to be near her, and they come to her when they have issues. She has a very positive aura," she adds. Raskin, who describes herself as a "tough broad," explains, "I tend to be more of the pragmatist. Debby says, 'Oh, there are these wonderful people we can help,' and I want to know, 'Are we going into debt here or what?'"

Hoffman doesn't want to be portrayed as perfect, though. "Hey, I'm just as silly and glitchy as anyone else," she says. "I've probably been a little fractured myself most of my life. But I do have this: I had a wonderful childhood, so good that people always think I must be in denial, because no one lives in even a semi-normal world anymore. But my parents were great, and they loved me. And I grew up on a ranch in Nebraska, driving a tractor and everything, in an area where people just very much helped each other. I mean, when someone passed away, 9,000 people showed up with food. Now, everyone's afraid to help anyone else for fear they'll get sued or hurt or something."

When she needs help, Hoffman turns to Virl, her husband of thirty years. "We grew up together," she explains. "We know each other inside and out. Now, I'm not going to say we haven't had our problems, but we've been very blessed. And I've been through some horrendous things, don't get me wrong--but having a good childhood and a good relationship with Virl, well, I'd like to pass some of that on to other people."

Prior to passing it on at the coffee shop, Hoffman was a business manager with Christian Family Services in Denver, where she helped birth parents through the adoption process; before that she worked with an inventor in California for nearly ten years while Virl built houses. "When the market went bad, we came here," she says. "Virl went to work for APS as a plumber, and that's when he heard about the job. He told me to call, and even though it didn't seem like I was truly qualified for the job, something about it just felt right."

That was nine months ago. Since then, Hoffman's expanded the coffee shop into an almost viable catering business. "Where else can you get this gourmet food turned out using nothing but a microwave, an electric wok and a Crock-Pot?" she asks. "We're supposed to get a stove one of these days." So far, the largest catering job they've pulled off was an Asian banquet for 170. "At one point, everything went all to heck," says Hoffman. "And that's when I was so proud of my crew here. They really rose to the challenge." If this were a typical restaurant, she adds, "I'd be bored out of my mind. But the shop is as glitchy as the rest of us, and we have as many laughs as we do tears."

It's another weekday afternoon, and O'Donley has a case of the giggles. As she waltzes to the singing Christmas tree, she asks Hoffman, who's just come out of the kitchen, about entertainment plans for an upcoming Friday night. The coffee shop stays open late one evening a week to provide a safe meeting place for the kids in Raskin's alternative high school program, which deals with severely emotionally disturbed youth and students who've been expelled. "These are tough kids," says Hoffman, as a motherly tone creeps into her voice. "But we try to love them unconditionally. And we've come to be their hangout on those nights. We get a band, or Virl and his buddies play."  

At this moment, one of the bands is practicing on the stage, which features donated equipment and the same work-in-progress decor as the rest of the coffee shop. The singer, Anna Kim Aleris, says she's suffered from depression all her life, and she sees playing at Good Company as therapeutic for both her and the clientele. "Music is such a helpful thing," she says. "I love watching the reactions of the kids who come here as they hear us play. Some of them really respond to it."

Aleris's partner, mandolin and guitar player Bradford Robinson, became involved in the coffee shop through his mother, Kay Robinson, who runs the Aurora Public Schools' program for hearing-impaired kids. "We're putting on this play together, my mom's kids and us, here at the coffee shop next week," he explains. "Even though some of the kids can't hear at all, some of them can hear a little bit, and most can feel the vibrations. It's a spoof on Snow White, and the kids are so excited about it, you wouldn't believe it."

"This is going to be so cool," adds Aleris. "And it's perfect that we're having it here at the coffeehouse. I can't believe it's taken this long for someone to come up with a program like this."

A few tables away, an instructor from a nearby English as a Second Language class is running her students through word drills so they can order a couple of cappuccinos. Closer to the counter, McKinney and Archuleta are comparing notes about their meds, and O'Donley is grimacing at the singing Christmas tree. Hoffman stands with her hands on her hips, surveying the scene and allowing herself a moment of satisfaction before scurrying back to the half-completed conference room.

"Oh, there's one more story I have to share," she says, turning back to the coffee shop. "I'll never forget this one day, we were all working here, and this woman who'd been coming in quite a bit burst through the door and yelled, 'Finally! They have certified that I am nuts!' Of course, we knew that. She'd been talking about running off with John Elway and stuff. But she hadn't been officially diagnosed. And we were so happy for her, because now they could start treating her. We all just stood there and clapped and cheered for her.

"Now, you tell me--where else in the world could she have gone to tell someone that?

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