In addition to tasty paninis and craft coffee drinks, Cafe the Lodge has been serving the mental health community since 2012.
Cafe the Lodge is a restaurant that doubles as a transitional employment program funded by Northampton County Mental Health that provides work for adults who have mental health diagnoses.
The restaurant provides these individuals with work in the cafe and housing services until they see fit for them to move on and work in the community. They currently serve 18 people at any given time.
Ian Panyko, program director, said they take a normalized approach to recovery and work.
“We should be realistic with what the expectations of employment are in the community,” he said. “We should certainly have an understanding of the underlying mental health diagnoses that could create barriers, and have patience and tolerance and empathy for individuals, while at the same time addressing the barriers that would prevent somebody from being successful to employment.”
Panyko said they investigate the root of problems their staff might encounter and look for ways to overcome those barriers while offering support throughout the way.
One example he gave was issues with attendance, which may be a result of conflicting appointments, a lack of resources or access to transportation.
Panyko said Cafe the Lodge functions like any other restaurant in its day-to-day operations, which normalizes the relationship between staff and customers.
“There are many people that come into the cafe that have no idea it’s a mental health program, have no idea that the person that’s serving them their food and taking their order has a significant mental health diagnosis,” he said. “They see it as quality food, a good price and a nice environment. That speaks volumes to mental health and what recovery truly looks like.”
Panyko said, as a recovery program, they place emphasis on their members being at the table and speaking up for themselves instead of having decisions be made for them.
Brianne Kichline, case manager supervisor, coordinates and conducts care meetings for the members, identifying their goals, progress and setbacks.
She said seeing members graduate from the program and express pride in themselves is gratifying.
“A lot of the work that we do here is just listening,” Kichline said. “It’s nice when someone calls and you let them vent and you can see in their demeanor or hear in their voice that they feel better after that. They know that they have someone that they can rely on for support — non judgmental support, which is something that not everyone gets.”
Since the cafe’s conception in 2012, Panyko said the cafe has had an unintended impact of becoming a community hub where people meet, collaborate on projects, take interviews and fulfill other work tasks.
“It is almost like we have our finger on the pulse of the community,” Panyko said. “A lot of people that are coming here are big movers and shakers in the community that see this as such a wonderful thing to have in the community. The support is enormous.”
He said COVID-19 caused a huge disruption to their operations, however, they are building up momentum again.
Panyko said one of their biggest goals is getting back out into the community. They’ve done it through various events, such as Dual Recovery Anonymous, a weekly support meeting for those with a chemical imbalance or chemical dependency, their virtual kids open mic hosted by Greg Annichiarrico and their Literary Arts Showcase in partnership with Lehigh Valley Charter High School for the Arts.
Kristen Liemberger, artistic director of literary arts, said the showcase takes the form of a monthly reading in the cafe. The first half of the set is composed of literary artists from the high school and the other half is open mic.
She said the event always draws a great turnout.
Liemberger said this partnership of six years has given her students a supportive, community-oriented environment where they have a voice.
“This is the place where healing happens,” Liemberger said. “They can see people who have mental health diagnoses as capable and competent. I think it definitely helps to get rid of the stigma around mental illness. There are people in literary arts who have struggled with mental health, myself included and I just feel solidarity and feeling like we’re a part of something bigger.”
Cafe the Lodge hosted the first showcase back in person on Oct. 1, as it had been held virtually during the throes of the pandemic. Liemberger said the day was an emotionally significant moment for her and many of her students, and signified a return to normalcy for the program.
Liemberger said the showcase felt extra special being held in the Mindfulness Garden, a serene outdoor space furnished with benches, tables and chairs and a koi fish pond that encourages patrons to stay present in the current moment.
The cafe also lends itself to the arts through their Artists in Recovery Exhibit that opened in January 2018.
Panyko said the original decor that adorned the walls were examples of individuals who were “Thriving with Mental Illness.” Shortly after, they pivoted their focus to connecting with the community by displaying works and biographies of local artists.
“I’ve always felt strongly that art and mental health go hand in hand,” Panyko said. “Art draws mental health and mental health draws art. I wanted to showcase and I wanted to connect more to that community.”
Panyko said the exhibit not only allows artists in the community to gain exposure and sell their work, but it allows community members who want to support mental health causes but don’t necessarily know how to or don’t have the time to volunteer, a direct way to do that.
With every sale, 85 percent of the money goes to the artist and 15 percent goes to the cafe to help support their operations.
Kichline said members at The Lodge also get community exposure through structured activities like their weekly Greenway cleanup and charity fund donation, in which every Christman they choose a charity to receive a lump sum donation from their restaurant tips.
Panyko said the most rewarding part about his job is the impact.
“The people that we work with often have so little but give so much,” Panuko said. “Just to be able to see the growth and the change and passion that comes out of people when they’re in the right environment.”
Panyko said he is grateful for the community support the cafe has received, and he invites all to not only share in their food and drinks, but their mission.