Windsor's 'sober bar' plans addiction support group, expansion to London

The Spiritual Soldiers Coffee Compound is now looking to expand. It's a dual-pronged approach owners hope to roll out next year — a new addictions day program in Windsor, and expanding the "sober bar" concept to London.

Owners hope to fill a gap where addicts seeking help must wait to get into treatment program

Bianca Oliverio is a 25-year-old who's now more than a year sober after battling a drug addiction. (Jason Viau/CBC)

The Spiritual Soldiers Coffee Compound, known for its sobering cup of coffee served by people who have battled addiction themselves, is now looking to expand.

It's a dual-pronged approach owners hope to roll out next year — a new addictions day program in Windsor, and expanding the "sober bar" concept to London.

"What we do is show people there's life after addiction," said co-owner James Lucier. "We've been able to help people where they weren't able to have help before."

With addicts and alcoholics ... you have a small window when you make that decision.- Bianca   Oliverio , co-owner, Spiritual Soldiers

The co-owners want to start a program designed to help people stay sober while they wait for space in certain treatment programs to open up.

"We find that here in Windsor there are so many wait lists," said co-owner Bianca Oliverio.

Some programs accept people right away, but in other cases, people making the decision to seek help are waiting between two and four months, she said.

Many people have come through the coffee shop doors "struggling" to stay sober during that waiting period.

Co-owner James Lucier says the Spiritual Soldiers clothing line helps keep the coffee shop open, and supports the group's expansion efforts. (Jason Viau/CBC)

Oliverio is studying to become a professional addictions counsellor, so she can run the support group two or three days a week.

"With addicts and alcoholics, being an addict myself, you have a small window when you make that decision that you want help before you go back into the life again," she said.

The coffee shop is known as a "sober bar," a safe haven for people recovering from drug or alcohol addiction in Windsor. Everyone behind the counter has their own story of struggle due to addiction.

Spiritual Soldiers relies on donations and sales from its coffee shop and clothing line to keep the cause going.

Expanding to London

The coffee shop's concept is one they plan to duplicate in London's downtown core.

Early last year, London's health unit saw an unprecedented number of opioid-related deaths, but that decreased as the year went on. Many groups in the region have formed what's known as the Opioid Crisis Working group to help tackle the problem.

A guest book at the coffee shop reads 'without this place I don't think I would've been able to stay clean this long.' (Jason Viau/CBC)

The opioid crisis is something the London community is struggling with, according to Sonja Burke, director of harm reduction services at the Regional HIV/AIDS Connection.

"People who are struggling don't have anywhere to go in the day," said Burke. "The biggest piece around addiction is the isolation."

Leaving detox or treatment can be daunting, which forces some people to start a new social network. What needs to happen, she said, is getting people to connect. Not through referrals, but instead to other humans.

"It's the idea of the social connection," said Burke, starting at a grassroots level. "That place where you can go and be safe."

'Richmond Row' not an option

Spiritual Soldiers is eyeing London's downtown core as its new shop sometime in 2020.

"We don't want to be located, as we say, right on Richmond Row, where all the bars and stuff are," said co-owner Mike Brown.

The coffee compound's story has travelled across North America with it being widely shared on social media. Brown has gotten messages from people in Texas, California, Toronto, Calgary, Vancouver and even Australia.

I was like a land mine. Anybody that came near me unfortunately got hit with a piece of shrapnel.- Mike Brown, co-owner, Spiritual Soldiers

But London is a place of many memories for Brown, both good and bad. It's where he grew up, but also where his addiction began. 

Brown, who's now 39, spent more than half of his life battling addictions to alcohol and cocaine. It all started when he was 18 and things spiralled out of control when he attempted suicide and had an overdose.

"I was like a land mine. Anybody that came near me unfortunately got hit with a piece of shrapnel," Brown said.

He hopes to take his experience of turning struggle into success to even more communities one day across Canada.

"We don't want to be the Tim Hortons of a recovery coffee house," said Brown.

"We want to keep the integrity of it. If it's meant to grow, it's meant to grow."

About the Author

Jason Viau

Jason Viau is a video journalist, TV host and radio newsreader at CBC Windsor. He was born in North Bay, but has lived in Windsor for most of his life. Since graduating from St. Clair College, he's worked in print, TV and radio. Email him at jason.viau@cbc.ca

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