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Help Comes To Orting, Where Opioid Overdoses Were Once A Tragic Part Of Life

It's been a year since a string of overdoses intensely polarized Orting, Washington, a small city of 7,000 in the foothills of Mount Rainier.

"There were people that were angry, that were hugely sorrowful," said Dennis Paschke, the pastor at Orting's United Methodist Church. "There were some that were filled with compassion. Some were demanding a response. Some were just lost."

It was a turning point.

For years, overdoses had been a normal part of life in Orting, not unlike rural areas across the nation, according to a recent nationwide survey by NPR, the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Services for people seeking help with addiction were often 20 miles away in Tacoma, with no links by public transit. 

Last year's spike in overdoses, including one that killed a 21-year-old man, left residents seeking answers and flocking to emotional meetings at City Hall. 

"The status quo was what it was," Paschke said. "It was, 'That’s just a fact of life and some people fall to the ravages of addiction and that’s sad,' but with no strong sense of what we could do about it."

In the months after the 2017 overdoses, Paschke and others searched for a solution. They opened talks with the Seattle organization Recovery Café about opening a branch in Orting. 

After a year of fundraising and preparation, Recovery Café opens the doors of its Orting branch Saturday in a 2,400-square-foot former daycare building owned by the United Methodist Church. 

Paschke, who is volunteering as the branch's executive director, talked with KNKX South Sound reporter Will James about the effort. You can listen to their conversation above. 

Recovery Café, which started 15 years ago in Seattle, now has branches throughout the region and elsewhere in the country. It provides spaces where people living with addiction can seek refuge in a café-like setting and get help from peers who are also going through the recovery process.

Those seeking to enter the café need to be drug and alcohol free for 24 hours.

"It's a low bar," Paschke said. "But it sets the ability in their mind that, yes, they can do this." 

At the café, members can get a meal or a cup of coffee, work in a community garden, and join in recovery groups. 

"They participate and have an ownership in this place," Paschke said. "This is their home. This is the place where they belong. And when we provide a place for belonging, then growth and transformation can happen."  

Supporters of the project raised about $95,000 to open the branch and keep it running through 2019, Paschke said. The money came from private donors as well as grants from the City of Orting, Pierce County, the Tulalip Tribes, Molina Healthcare of Washington, and the Korum for Kids Foundation. The branch will have one paid staffer, who will manage operations, and a crew of volunteers.

"We're not waiting on some budget appropriation from Washington or Olympia," Paschke said. "We're not waiting on some broad, sweeping policy directive that's going to somehow fix everything. It's about community people coming together and saying, 'We can really be the change we need.'" 

Orting's Recovery Café will open its doors on Wednesdays and Saturdays for the foreseeable future, and grow as demand rises, Paschke said. He hopes the branch will reach 100 members sometime in 2019. 

A news story that aired on KNKX on November 16, 2018, about the opening of a Recovery Cafe in Orting, Wash.

Will James is a former KNKX reporter and was part of the special projects team, reporting and producing podcasts such as Outsiders and The Walk Home.