It was precisely a year ago, in Lawrence, when the moment arrived. Reyman Ortiz was getting high, the only constant in a tumultuous 25-year war with substance abuse and impulsivity.
“I was sitting on a bench doing a blast” of heroin, he recalled early last week. “Then I looked up to the sky and said, ‘God, if this is going to be my life, take me.’ ”
Two years earlier in Framingham, Louis Torres’ pivot point was more secular but no less of an epiphany. “It was when, for the first time, I took cash from my mother” to buy heroin, part of a two-decades-long drug dependency he used as a temporary salve for internal anger. “I never had been at that low a point but when I did it, I said, ‘I have a problem. I have to look for help.’ ”
Ortiz and Torres have stayed clean and sober since their respective reckonings. They’ve also emerged as twin pillars of a building success story at Worcester’s Café Reyes, the spirited Cuban-style restaurant at 421 Shrewsbury St. staffed by Latino men in recovery.
The cafe and its unique mission received a flurry of media attention — including a visit from a Boston TV station — shortly after its early March grand opening. Eight months later, the experiment has blossomed into a model program on the verge of expansion.
RELATED: Read our profile of what Café Reyes has to offer your palate here.
Festive music and heavenly aromas permeate Café Reyes, which has drawn uniformly high ratings for its freshly made fare. Less apparent are the life, work and social skills being served up daily to the once-hardened men who clean, cook and wait tables.
“You want to start fresh, pick things up little by little, and accomplish things in life. The best thing is, you can actually be yourself here. You don’t have to hide your feelings. We can actually sit down and talk about things and deal with them.” — Louis Torres, Cafe Reyes chef in recovery
Ortiz, a waiter, and cook-turned-chef Torres have been there from the start. They’ve progressed from introductions to the rudimentary skills of holding a job to mentoring confidently the more recent trainees.
“I try to reach them by leading by example,” Ortiz said. Added Torres, “I feel like I’m a part of them, and they need me just the way I need them.”
“This is exactly what I thought it could be. The men have come into their own. It was my dream that ‘this’ could become ‘theirs’,” said Dr. Matilde Castiel, who conceived Café Reyes as an offshoot of the Latin American Health Alliance’s Hector Reyes House, where she serves as executive director. “It’s not that they’re just rotating through” the restaurant, she said. “They feel like this is their place and they value it as their own.”
Opened in 2009 and touted as the only one of its kind in Central Massachusetts, Hector Reyes House provides substance-abuse treatment and medical and behavioral therapy for 25 Latino male residents at a time. The multi-phase program gives its graduates the option of paying rent to stay at the nearby Casa Reyes transition home.
Dr. Castiel, a Cuban native informally known to her charges as “Mattie,” was recently named commissioner of health and human services in Worcester. She also holds associate professorships in three disciplines — internal medicine, family and community medicine, and psychiatry — at UMass Medical School.
The Hector Reyes House/Café Reyes arrangement is distinctive for its focus on in-recovery Latino males, but Dr. Castiel took note of similar programs with like-minded goals. As examples, she pointed to Boston’s Haley House, which offers “a collaborative living and working environment,” and Los Angeles-based Homeboy Industries, in its 26th year of providing support and job training for nearly 10,000 former gang members annually.
Like the lives they formerly led, nothing about the Café Reyes workers’ transitions has been easy. The same can be said for the restaurant’s manager and culinary instructor, Kenny Bourbeau.
“It’s definitely difficult, but a welcoming challenge. I’ve gotten to (practice) a lot of patience,” said Bourbeau, 39. The Lynn native spent 20 years in the restaurant business before being recruited to run the cafe and provide work therapy and job-skills training for an occasionally volatile mix of men in recovery.
“We have days when I’m sure everyone hates my guts, and days where we all work together well,” Bourbeau said with a light-hearted tone. “I’d like to think that I’m having an impact and influence” on their lives.
Without a doubt. “It teaches me how to be more responsible, show up on time, and deal with life’s ways,” Torres said. “You want to start fresh, pick things up little by little, and accomplish things in life. The best thing is, you can actually be yourself here. You don’t have to hide your feelings. We can actually sit down and talk about things and deal with them. The same way you can socialize with the people in this restaurant, you can socialize out there in your life.”
“This is a blessing for us. It gives us a place to go and to be someone,” Ortiz said.
When taking on cafe trainees who often haven’t held a job in years, if ever, nothing is assumed. “Getting in the habit of waking up for work — it’s the most basic things,” Bourbeau said. “How to handle their schedule to notify me when they have appointments. How to handle emotional situations at work. Sometimes people walk out. We go back and review what happened, and try to come up with [a solution].
“Everyone here is such an individual,” he said, emphasizing the final word. “Some have restaurant experience so they’re able to jump into a position, and we just have to focus on the ‘soft skills.’ Some, I basically have to train through every moment and every task.”
His days are demanding, but Bourbeau gains satisfaction beyond watching his men render a properly cooked meal or courteous service. Citing two men he declined to name for privacy’s sake, Bourbeau said a former Café Reyes worker has gone on to full-time restaurant work in Worcester and “one of the biggest success stories here is someone who had never worked before.
Last week marked what he considers the high point of his Café Reyes experience.
“We had one small catering event on Monday, and by the end of the day we had an event planned for every day of the week, and each went off as a complete success,” Bourbeau said. “Nobody called in, nobody walked out. It was a perfect week. The morale was high and everybody left happy. They had that look on their face that they’d done a solid day’s work.”
As he made clear during a conversation last weekend, Torres takes immense pride in being one of Bourbeau’s key men in the kitchen. The just-promoted chef took his visitor back to the grill to prepare what is literally his signature dish.
“We call it ‘The Louis,’ ” said Torres as he cracked a couple of eggs into a skillet. After gaining a bit of creative freedom from Bourbeau and Café Reyes’ weekend manager, Maxine Musmon, Torres had a thought: “Why not take a Cuban sandwich and turn it into breakfast? So that’s what I did.”
“Louis is always asking questions and he’s always saying, ‘How can we make this better?’ He’s really got that restaurant mindset,” said Musmon. The 45-year-old Spencer resident worked closely with the dozen men in the Quinsigamond Community College culinary program under the guidance of Pat Hutchinson, who heads the college’s Hospitality & Recreation Management program.
Musmon, a QCC hospitality major who expects to graduate this spring, holds a singular perspective on the men’s progress. “Absolutely,” she said. “I got to work with them strictly on the culinary side” during training, “and saw how the things they learned have translated into actually working in a real restaurant.”
That familiarity allows Musmon to give her cooks a chance “to play a bit on the weekends. It lets them grow,” she said. One result of that experimentation is the popular Reyes Club, a sandwich she describes as “a BLT gone Cuban.” And, of course, there’s “The Louis.”
“It’s been a success,” Torres said of his pride and joy. “We sold six of them yesterday and three of them this morning.”
The 41-year-old Torres was born in Fitchburg, but spent most of his youth in the small town of Coamo, Puerto Rico. He returned to the area at age 17 in search of his mother, Sylvia, and eventually moved in with her and his siblings. Plagued by painful memories of an earlier trauma, he fell into the cycle of substance abuse.
“In my childhood, I was molested by a family member. I didn’t know how to deal with it and I didn’t know how to search for help,” he said. “I figured by using drugs, it would numb it. But the drugs made it worse, because the high is only for a couple of minutes, then the problem is still there.”
Torres’s 20-year dependency led to homelessness, all while “holding my anger inside,” he said. The profound regret about stealing his mother’s money three years ago was the first of several flash points in his recovery. The rest have taken place in Worcester.
First came detox. “I called CHL and they had a bed for me,” said Torres in reference to UMass Memorial Community Healthlink’s facility on Chandler Street. After a week, he moved into the hospital’s PASSages stabilization program. Thirty days later, he successfully concluded his CHL therapy and began a six-month stay at Hector Reyes House.
Torres’ fight to stay clean was motivated throughout by the hope of reuniting with his daughter, Jayleen. “I turned the corner in the third month at Hector Reyes House,” he recalled with conviction. “I hadn’t seen my (then-17-year-old) daughter for 12 years, and she showed up and found me on Father’s Day.”
Jayleen, now a young adult living in North Carolina, continues to build a relationship with her father. Torres also keeps in contact with his son Louis, a recent Army recruit currently stationed in Germany.
Asked about his plans for the future, Torres’ loyalty was clear. “I’m going to be working here, getting more skills and working more with the guys,” he said.
“Today is my one-year anniversary of being sober,” Rey Ortiz announced as he sat down for a conversation at the cafe on a recent Monday. Weary yet buoyant, he was coming off an entirely different kind of high: Ortiz was in Washington, D.C., a day earlier to march with thousands in the inaugural UNITE to Face Addiction rally and hear the music of such in-recovery luminaries as Sheryl Crow and Steven Tyler.
“My sponsor called me last week and asked if I could attend. I said, ‘Yeah,’ because I’d never been anywhere. It was an honor and a blessing to be there,” he said.
“People think if you’re in recovery, everything’s fine. No. For 25 years, I was getting high. In those years, I numbed my feelings, my emotions, the pain, the hurt. I had no life skills. I was homeless, sleeping in abandoned buildings, parks, benches. Coming to recovery, I had to relearn how to be a man, live life.” — Rey Ortiz, Cafe Reyes waiter
Ortiz, 40 years old and the father of seven, was raised to have a spiritual side. But after issuing his plea to a higher power from that bench on Oct. 3, 2014, he placed a more terrestrial call to his mother, Elizabeth, a New Jersey-based pastor.
“Mom, I’m tired. I can’t do this anymore,” he said. Ortiz’s mother persuaded him to contact a Tewksbury detox center. Two days later, he had a bed.
“I just started praying and turned my will over to God,” recalled Ortiz. “I said, ‘Lord, help me, because I can’t do this on my own. I want to stop, but I can’t. Whatever door you’re opening, I will go.’ “
He found his way to the Boston Rescue Mission’s Kingston House for three months of post-detox therapy, and was welcomed into Hector Reyes House in early 2015.
Ortiz’s timing was fortuitous. He was one of 12 of the house’s residents invited to take part in a Quinsigamond Community College-sponsored restaurant-training course in preparation for the opening of Café Reyes. Ortiz and Torres are among the course graduates who’ve since been promoted to staff.
Summing up his one-year whirlwind of recovery, Ortiz said, “The change was in my mindset. They way I think, the way I feel and the way I act. Also, the way I talk and treat people. I’d never met people from different walks of life. Now I do know them, and they’ve shown me how to live life. They ask me about my story, they give me compliments and encouragement.
“Now I have my own place in Casa Reyes — I never had my own place,” he said. “I had always depended on a female, whether it be my mother, my sister or my cousin. … I’m not who I used to be.”
Ortiz hasn’t forgotten the bad days, however.
“I’ve been blessed with so many things on this path, but I’ve been through a lot of pain and hurt,” he said. “People think if you’re in recovery, everything’s fine. No. For 25 years, I was getting high. In those years, I numbed my feelings, my emotions, the pain, the hurt. I had no life skills. I was homeless, sleeping in abandoned buildings, parks, benches. Coming to recovery, I had to relearn how to be a man, live life. But I was willing and open to be led and be taught.
“Yes, I’m hard-headed sometimes, but I trusted in a higher power and stayed on the path,” he said. “I might have slipped here and there, but I never used. I also became man enough to apologize and say, ‘Listen, I’m sorry.’ ”
Chief among those who accepted Ortiz’s contrition are his 21-year-old son, Reyman Ortiz Jr., and his supportive mother. “ ‘R.J.’ is always on Facebook telling everyone how proud he is of me, and my mother is in awe of how well I’m doing,” he said.
Ortiz has given his future a lot of thought. “I intend to be here for another year. I want to see the new guys, help them out, and encourage more guys from the house’’ to become part of Café Reyes, he said. Following that, “I would like to go to another restaurant and use the skills I learned here. This is where I started, and I’d like to continue on that path.”
The successful transitions of Ortiz and Torres mirror the rise of Café Reyes as a business. Originally open Mondays to Fridays, the eatery expanded its 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. schedule to the weekends nearly four months ago.
With the aid of two recent grants — $87,000 from the The Health Foundation of Central Massachusetts and a $25,000 award from the George F. and Sybil H. Fuller Foundation — the two-story structure’s upper floor will be renovated into new kitchen space focused on catering preparation. The grants also provide money for marketing. A Facebook-based Kickstarter campaign secured another $6,000 toward the purchase of a delivery van.
The expanded catering operation is expected to bring more training opportunities and working hours for the cafe’s current staff and other men from Hector Reyes House.
Bourbeau noted that, beyond catering being roughly twice as lucrative as the day-to-day income of the cafe’s physical space, “it’s a second skill set that we’re bringing to the table for the guys. When I think about what kind of training and jobs I want the guys to go into, I think about that.”
Café Reyes appears primed to continue what Dr. Castiel called “a great help to society and the community. The men have shown they can make it.”
“In life terms, what we’ve learned is that we don’t have to be high to be happy,” Torres said. “That’s what keeps us going.”