Recently, I caught up with Professor John Freyer and Tom Bannard to talk about Rams in Recovery, founded in 2013 on the Virginia Commonwealth University campus, and the program’s Free Hot Coffee Bike.

John came up with the idea for the bike as part of a social practice art project and Tom is the Rams in Recovery program coordinator. Both are in long-term recovery.

Following is my conversation with them.

BW: Guys, this is quite a unique concept for carrying the message. Tell me about how you dreamed it into being.

JF: I’m a social practice artist, which means I make socially engaged interactive art works. For the last few years I have been making works that engage populations affected by addiction, including persons in recovery.

Thoreau wrote, “I have three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.”

Like those chairs, my projects work at the individual, small group and larger community levels to create space for people to have real conversations.

TB: John is really good at building community around relationships. He’s also really good at bugging people when he wants to get something done!

I knew John had this bike project that was part of his exhibit and he kept talking to me about turning it into a coffee bike for Rams in Recovery. He was constantly showing me Instagram photos of food-cart bikes.

BW: Okay, John, tell us why the fascination with a coffee bike, and how did it get built?

JF: The fascination?  How cool is this thing?  As far as building it, there’s an artist-run non-profit with a storefront called 1708 Gallery. They gave me their space for a two week show last June. We created an experiential space for folks in recovery. We built a bike and put it on the wall for the first week and then had 12-steps meetings, Rams in Recovery steering meetings and all kinds of other stuff. During the second week of the exhibit, we took the bike around campus.

BW: This story keeps getting better! So how did you pay for this thing?

TB: Well, we applied for a Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) Bringing Recovery Supports to Scale Technical Assistance Center Strategy (BRSS TACS) grant, and decided to include it in the grant.

BW: How did that grant go?

JF: We didn’t get the grant but I had several good paragraphs in the application that I started hustling around town. I took the idea to the Dean of VCUarts who said he’d give us $1,000. When I told the head of student affairs that the dean gave us $1,000, they came on board too. So did the Office of Sustainability which also donated solar panels to the project.

Within two weeks of the grant’s rejection, we had the $5,000 we needed to build out the coffee bike.

BW: And how about the coffee?

JF: The coffee we serve on the bike is a custom roasted coffee called “Recovery Roast” which is based on a flavor profile determined by our students. Lamplighter Roasting Company partnered with us and roasts more than five pounds a week to serve on the bike and in the Rams in Recovery clubhouse.

BW: Okay, so let’s talk about the bike and the process. Say you’re set up on campus and I come up to the cart and am curious. What happens next?

TB: So we serve Recovery Roast using a pour-over method that takes about five minutes to prepare. During that time, you and I would talk about recovery in some way. I might tell you a little bit of my story; you might share some of yours if you want to disclose.

If you’re a student or faculty member not in recovery, we may still have a conversation about the stigma around addiction and recovery. The thing is, it’s hard to hate up close. In those moments—it’s a 5-10 minute investment of time—how can you not support recovery?

JF: We have dedicated days and special events when students and allies take the bike onto campus. The bike carries 30 enamel/magnetic blue cups. So, the coffee is brewed one cup at a time while folks gather around for conversation. It’s an advocacy vehicle that promotes a safe place for sharing stories.

TB: The coffee bike is a great community-building tool.  For most people, recovery is a hidden identity, people don’t have easy ways to connect with each other outside of meetings.  The coffee bike is a great way for our students to affirm that recovery identity and meet others on campus who may or may not be in recovery.

BW: Tom and John, thanks for this conversation—it’s been great! Congratulations on a tremendous project. Any final thoughts?

TB: Collegiate recovery is special in a lot of ways. We have the opportunity to create a lot of change by creating access to services, breaking down stigma associated with addiction and recovery and meeting people where they are. In many ways college can serve as a model for making societal changes.