Like so many people during the COVID-19 pandemic, Ted Neill felt isolated from his community. A big part of that community was Recovery Café, where Ted has been a loyal volunteer since 2015.
“It felt so strange to be cut off from them, knowing how the pandemic was affecting people who had preexisting health issues. I was wondering if there were Café Members I was friends with who I would never see again. And how would I know what happened to them?”
Ted feels deeply for people in crisis in part because he’s been there himself. “I was hospitalized for depression in 2012. While I was there I met a bunch of folks who were in 12-Step programs, and they just poured into me.” Though Ted has never struggled with substance addiction himself, 12-Step programs offered the spirituality he says he needed at that time in his life. Along with other treatment and support, he says, “It helped me cope with my depression, and I haven’t had a relapse yet.”
Because he is not an alcoholic himself, Ted cannot be an AA sponsor. But service work is important to him and volunteering at Recovery Café is one of the ways he gives back. “I think it is helpful when I’m talking to people at the Café and I can say, ‘Yeah, I’ve been locked up without my shoe laces and belt. And recovery is possible.’”
Before the pandemic, Ted volunteered two days a week at the South Lake Union Café, offering companionship to Members. “I’d come in in the afternoon and just play cards with people, hang out, you know, just be present with people.” He is quick to add, “It’s not like I was doing them a favor; I got as much out of it as anyone who’s coming in here and enjoying themselves.”
Eating dinner with Members could have capped off Ted’s evenings at the Café, but his dedication as a volunteer extended to supporting staff. Earlier in his career, Ted was an international public health worker for nonprofit organizations (he has traveled to 34 countries), and he understands what it is to get burned out. So once dinner was finished, he says, his focus was on getting as much done as he could to help clean up, “and get the people who work here home on time.”
The pandemic forced the Café to close its doors to Members on March 17, 2019, but within 24 hours, a to-go lunch program was started. Ted says he was “all in” on coming back to volunteer to make these meals for the community. Being at the Café during this time felt different to him, but Ted found meaning just the same. And as Recovery Café staff can attest, he has played a critical role in the to-go meal effort. Now, more than 90,000 meals later, Ted is still essential to the program’s success.
“When I was making hundreds of lunches a day, I’d become kind of Zen. You get into this rhythm of just putting stuff in the bags.” Ted opted not to listen to music or podcasts during his morning shifts, instead appreciating being in a little corner office where it was quiet, except for the rumble of traffic outside. During this time Ted didn’t have the opportunity to interact with people as much, but he remembers feeling like he was “taking care of my people.” He adds, “And I don’t mean that as in possessive. It’s like, I’m one of them. I just happened to get lucky enough to be a little more functioning. Today! And so, let me help them out.”
Ted is now a full-time writer, having published multiple books across genres, so he has a way with words. Asked what the term “radical hospitality” means to him, he needs only two: “everyone belongs.”
And how would he describe Recovery Café to someone unfamiliar with it? He says it’s a community where people who are wrestling with a combination of struggles including addiction, mental illness, or being unhoused, “can come and just feel like they’re part of a community.”
Ted deeply understands that Recovery Café volunteers are an integral part of this community. “Sometimes as a volunteer, yours might be the only voice someone hears that day that is not in their head. On the street, some folks, especially if they’re having a psychotic break or something, people are going to be avoiding them and not talking to them. And having been in the psych ward myself, yeah, you know, but for the grace of God–and white privilege–goes me.”
What Ted wants for Café Recovery Members and other volunteers is what he has received himself: “I feel like I belong here and can be my full self, with my full story, in a way I can’t anywhere else.” His story with Recovery Café continues to evolve.
Last fall, Ted’s volunteer role shifted from packing up meals in a back room to handing them out to the people who come to the Café’s to-go area. “It’s nice to offer a meal and some kindness to folks, some who may be too shy, for whatever reason, to come into the Café.” This experience led to connections that even he wasn’t aware of at the time.
“When I was having lunch at the Café recently, I was at a table eating with some Members and one of them, whom I thought I hadn’t met before, said to me, ‘Oh, I know you. I get a lunch from you at that window on Mondays. I’m the guy who comes by on a bike.’ Then I immediately knew who he was. I just hadn’t recognized him without a mask on!”
Recovery Café is grateful to Ted for his faithful dedication over the years. He is a great representative of our work to bring people of all life experiences and backgrounds together to form authentic relationships and a supportive community. If you want to learn more about Ted you can check out his website at tedneillauthor.com.
If you would like to learn more about volunteering at Recovery Café please contact our Radical Hospitality Coordinator, Julia, at firstname.lastname@example.org.