Under the arched ceiling of a former vaudeville theater in the Gordon Square Arts District of Cleveland, Ohio, spackled with the ghostly remnants of faded floral frescos, lines of black chairs fill with theater patrons on a chilly Sunday afternoon. Backstage, the actors ripple with energy, moving through their pre-show rituals before a final matinee performance. With 15 minutes until curtain, a huddle forms in the men’s dressing room. “One foot in for the ones still sick and suffering.” The group recites the serenity prayer, says amen, and streams into the stage wings to prepare for their entrance.
The cast of In Our Wake, clients of the Y-Haven program, perform at Cleveland Public Theatre.
For 24 years, clients from Y-Haven, a recovery program for adults experiencing homelessness and addiction in Cleveland, Ohio, have processed their recovery through the medium of performing arts. On stage, the actors speak and move with the poise of professional actors, yet they embody the frank honesty of folks whose most-trying experiences echo through every character. In Our Wake, the 2023 capstone of the Cleveland Public Theatre's Y-Haven Theatre Project, is “a play about trying.” Under the lead direction and writing of Melissa Crum, Cleveland Public Theatre’s artistic and education associate, we watch the character Amari, performed by Asia Worley, search for forgiveness and reconciliation following the death of her mother. Amari represents, not one singular experience, but a collection of memories threaded through the lives of the cast, a diverse group of men and women.
All at once, the piece is tender, funny, and devastating as Amari grapples with the life she has lived, the life she’s still living, the generational cycles of trauma, and the ways human beings handle, or mishandle, their pain. As the narrators tell us, “Amari didn’t need a yell, she needed a whisper.” Yet, the audience observes the screaming shame of her choices ringing in her ears, echoing inescapably through the voices around her, like a feedback loop of her worst days. The play is only one part of the robust programming developed by Y-Haven — a unique branch of the YMCA of Greater Cleveland — but it perfectly underscores the holistic and innovative creativity at the heart of its care. Community, empowerment, and the difficult, introspective work of understanding one's own addiction illuminate both the bond shared by the actors and the heart of Y-Haven’s approach. Gregory Emory-White, a client who performed the role of Amari’s brother in the play, says, “We call this a safe haven.”
Actors in the Y-Haven Theatre Project perform an original play at the historic Cleveland Public Theatre.
Obiekwe "Obi" Okolo
"They do a lot here."
The Y-Haven office and residential building stands eight floors tall on the eastern side of Cleveland. Formerly a public housing building built in the 1960s, the site was occupied by Y-Haven 26 years ago, three years after its founding. The YMCA has eleven branches across Greater Cleveland and many more across the United States but, “We are kind of the weird one,” explains Ed Gemerchak, vice president of behavioral health for the YMCA and executive director of Y-Haven, “Not many YMCAs do something like this.”
Snow falls outside the Y-Haven residences on the eastern side of Cleveland.
Obiekwe "Obi" Okolo
Initially, Y-Haven focused on serving men experiencing homelessness but is now primarily a residential treatment facility for both men and women with substance abuse. “We're a little more focused on doing that clinical service,” says Ed. “And we've expanded our reach and our size. I think our budget's about tripled over the last seven years. Our staff has nearly tripled because there's such a need here.”
Since its founding, Y-Haven has also added specialized programming for people recovering from opioid use disorder (Rising Hope, starting in 2017) and people re-entering society after incarceration (Open Door, starting in 2010). In all three programs, holistic, clinical care is at the forefront, exemplified even in the intentional language used to address the Y-Haven clients. “It helps remind our staff that these folks are our clients. We're obliged to them, we're accountable to them,” Ed explains. “Everyone in the building, whether it's a guy who's cleaning the floor or working in administration, contributes to that kind of healing.”
Pamela Switzer, a case counselor, remains continuously impressed by the thoughtful framework that the Y-Haven leadership is always innovating, in particular, the emphasis on mental health, trauma recovery, and PTSD. Activities such as yoga and meditation are provided alongside EMDR psychotherapy. Weekly bus tickets and financial literacy training are arranged for individuals ready to enter the workforce. Counselors, too, are in regular training for topics like cultural competency, sexuality and gender, CPR, and HIPAA compliance. Y-Haven is uninterested in simply offering a bed for 30, 60, or 90 days. Residents may stay “as long as they need” to recover, even up to a couple of years, so long as they remain true to the program and stay clean. “Yeah, they do a lot here,” says Pam.
"They going to lift you."
Tony Serna, Director, Homeless Clinical Services at Y-Haven, says, “We've always considered ourselves a holistic program.” This quality distinguishes Y-Haven from the many other recovery programs in Ohio and beyond. “They get down to the nitty-gritty, what started your addiction,” says Asia. “From family matters to emotional reasons, trauma, relationships, all of this is wrapped up in one. You get an understanding of what the addiction is and why it is occurring.”
Many Y-Haven residents, like Samantha Nelson, have spent time in other recovery programs, but say Y-Haven has been different from the start. “When the new girls come in, me and my roommate, we help feed them, make sure they're taken care of until they get on their feet. So there's support here that I've never gotten anywhere else.” The counselors at Y-Haven care, she says, “And they’ve been there, which I think makes a big difference.” Indeed, some of the case counselors at Y-Haven have been in recovery themselves before pursuing clinical work.
Shared experience bonds the entire community, and while regular waves of irritation rise among even the closest friends, the general consensus is that here, clients are family. Adam Hughes, another client, has watched himself come out of his shell as part of his recovery journey. “[I had to] kind of steer away from my hyper-independent tendencies and to accept help from other people. There is so much generosity, especially when you've been here for a while, and you see someone new, and you can easily place yourself into the position that they were in because you were just there.”
On his first day, walking in with only the clothes on his back, he was given a key to his new apartment, which he would share with one other man in the Y-Haven residences. Adam remembers, “He came up to me, and he gave me a hug. And he told me, ‘Welcome. If you need anything, just let me know, and I'll help you out.’ And I was kind of surprised.” He admits, “Everybody has bad days. But for the most part, people try to check up on each other, and make sure that there isn't anything that maybe some of us are missing.” He says that when recovery waivers and people start to “decline,” or exhibit behaviors that indicate a potential relapse, the community around them might notice it before the individual can recognize it for themself. In those moments, the unified trust and ability to intervene can be the life-saving difference to keep one’s friends on course. “I did not have anybody [before Y-Haven] and I'm very lucky that people were able to look out for me.”
Adam Hughes is a Y-Haven client and actor in In Our Wake.
Obiekwe "Obi" Okolo
Y-Haven is multi-generational, with widespread peer-to-peer mentorship. “We have individuals who are at different stages of their recovery, and those who have been here for a while understand and remember,” says Shaun Drake, another client. “And so I understand that when a newcomer comes in, he or she may not have anything and I have a little bit to give, and I'm okay with giving.” On his first day, he was immediately overwhelmed with plates of food and other gifts, which he was initially reluctant to receive. An older gentleman named Rick encouraged him to accept the gifts and immediately put Shaun on the inside of something special, removing the othering barriers of “us” and “them”, instead creating a family environment. “The strongest thing is someone understanding how life may feel and what I'm going through, what I'm thinking about being in a new environment, a new place. He took that time to care for me and he still does it today.”
Adam, one of the younger guys in the program, agrees, “A lot of the people have told me they wish that they would've been here at the age that I am, and that I have a beautiful opportunity to head in a different direction, that I don't have to end up spending as many years in the chaos.” Everyone at Y-Haven brings a completely different life and relationship to their addiction. Still, Adam says, “We're all very different people, but we have this one thing in common. And it's very easy to bring us together, for good or bad.”
Bernard Makupson, a case counselor with Open Door, encourages his clients to lean into one another. “It's our desire for them to come in here, and to become part of the Y-Haven family and know that they have [the counselors’] support. But not only our support, each other's support. We say that there's no greater therapeutic value than one addict helping another.”
Ed says Y-Haven’s “secret sauce” is this connectedness and camaraderie among clients. “We have a whole welcome team of residents who were welcomed by someone else. They say, ‘It's going to be okay. I'm so glad you're here. I know it's scary. You might be feeling not-so-great today.’ And then they welcome them into the building. They show them where to go. They provide some breakfast for them. People walk up here and someone who they don't know has made breakfast for them.”
He offers assurance that, yes, Y-Haven leads with evidence-based programs and phenomenal staff, but “probably the most critical thing to the success of Y-Haven, and the healing that happens, is the connection people make with their peers. I mean, that's the magic of 12-step recovery, it's community,” he says. “This is too hard to do by yourself.”
The safety and security begetting this familiarity come from a framework of firmness and kindness. There are strict rules for maintaining emotional and physical safety, essential for the long-term wellness of the clients. “We want this to be a safe place for everyone,” says Tony. “We don't tolerate any violence, threats of violence, aggression.”
Even when clients need to leave Y-Haven — unlike in other programs — residents are not simply thrown out back onto the street. Staff will quickly work to find somewhere else for them to go. Gregory also acknowledges the painful reality that family might turn you away. “Your family might be like, ‘I don't want to hear that. I done heard that 1000 times. Go ahead.’ … But in here, they [do] nothing but try to lift you up. If you want to be lifted, they going to lift you.”
"I watch them win their life back."
The Y-Haven magic is so natural that it’s easy to forget how truly remarkable it is. Recovery is hard, and recovery programs are unfortunately not always built with a client-first sensitivity to ensure lasting change for its participants. “Drug treatment is not amazingly successful in our country,” says Ed. The national average for completing a 30 day program is only 27%, but 61% of Y-Haven clients finish 90 days of treatment. “We’re really proud of that.”
One bed for 30 days, on its own, is not a framework for success. Community support, holistic care, creativity, individuality, and aftercare are essential tools for this work. This is especially true in Cleveland, one of the poorest cities in the US, where 32% of the residents live in poverty. “This is kind of like ground zero for work with people who are disenfranchised,” says Ed. Yet this provides an exciting opportunity to be a catalyst for widespread change. As Y-Haven continues to meet the needs of the people in their building they want to share what they’ve learned with other YMCAs. “There's need, not just in Cleveland, but our YMCAs all over greater Cleveland. As we're talking with them about this mind, body, spirit dimension, the Y can be more than just a place to swim and work out,” says Ed.
While the persistent joy and hope emanating from the staff regarding their restorative work is evident, Bernard is honest about the heartache present each day. “They all suffer from the disease of addiction, and it's diabolical. It is out to take [their] life.” It’s painful to watch a client struggle, return to using, or even pass away. He recently attended a “coining out” ceremony — a client’s ritual transition from phase one to phase two of the program — and recognized that his client was under the influence of drugs. “It reinforced how seductive and devastating that disease is.”
A crucial part of the counselor-client relationship is building a bond of trust, so the grief of loss or disappointment is natural. Yet, all throughout the staff, there is a shared understanding of the indispensable importance of boundaries and self-care. “It's hard leaving the job here,” says Bernard, “because you become attached to the clients.”
“When you're dealing with people — real, live, human beings — you worry about them, if they're going to be there the next day when you come, and all things that they may do.”
“We can't make people do the right thing, they have to get that message themselves,” says Tony, “It is especially rewarding — when they do get it, even if it's temporary — that they have that insight, that you see the light bulb go off. For a moment, and sometimes longer, you know that what you're working on is making sense.”
Even with the challenges of the work, Pamela is insistent that “this is the first job I ever had, in my whole 59 years, that I don't get tired of coming to.” One of the major differences is her relationships with the other staff, specifically the leadership and her supervisors: Ed, Tony, and Phil Buck, Y-Haven’s clinical director.
The celebration of staff goes soup-to-nuts. “I work with a tremendous staff here,” says Tony, who started as a case counselor when he first joined Y-Haven over ten years ago. He makes a point to check-in with the staff almost every day, and they are transparent about their needs in return. As for himself, in his 30 years of vocational social service, he learned the need for a good support system early on. “It's really important to have that structure and those barriers, that place where you just need to take a step back and take care of yourself.”
“Everybody has a limit,” says Pamela. “In so many organizations, I feel like people get into it because they have a good heart and then they get burned out so quickly and leave.” It is only because of Y-Haven’s fundamental commitment to wellness, for their clients and their staff, that counselors can engage full-heartedly with their clients. Furthermore, there is no mistaking that, as a team, they’re all in this together. “Ed don't play,” says Pamela. “I've seen Ed roll up his sleeves and go into a room and clean it.”
Every member of the Y-Haven team speaks with gentleness so unworried; it’s staggering to remember the complications of their heart-centered commitment to human healing. Tony explains that the two-fold approach of structure and sensitivity allows for a mutually beneficial client-counselor experience. “It's about accepting consequences and knowing that people make mistakes. People know that we're serious about assisting them to get to where they want to go, but it's really up to them.”
Ed says that, despite some challenges, Y-Haven is “a remarkably peaceful place” because the stakes are so high for their clients. “A lot of folks have been in treatment many, many times. They've been on the street for a long time, and they're like, ‘how am I going to get off this hamster wheel and how am I going to stop this terrible process?’ There's a lot of motivation to try to get it right and sustain something.”
Bernard notes that for his clients, who have spent so much of their lives suffering, “Adversity is the mother of creation. They have been put to the test, and so when they do finally get their disease under control, most of them flourish. That is why I come here every day. I love to see the transformation from the caterpillar to the butterfly. It's miraculous.” Pamela too fundamentally enjoys watching people succeed. “It's a miracle for people who have been using for 20, 30 years and feel trapped. I can't explain the feeling I get to watch them win their life back,” she says.
There are many ways for Y-Haven clients to experience winning. “Yay me” moments in community groups celebrate personal accomplishments. “Coining out” ceremonies mark a client’s transition from initial detoxing to a second phase of increased independence, finding a job, or reconnecting with family. Then, of course, there is the annual play.
"It’s like being with your family everyday, with no arguing."
Cleveland Public Theatre (CPT) was founded in 1981 by James Levin with the mission of raising consciousness and nurturing compassion through groundbreaking performances and life-changing education programs. For the last 24 years, that pursuit has included the Y-Haven Theatre Project. For his entire professional career, CPT has been Raymond Bobgan’s artistic home. As a fellow, a teaching artist, and since 2006, Executive Artistic Director, Raymond says the partnership was obvious, “[James] had a notion that theaters need to be of the people, with the people, in the community, and of great service.”
When Chip Joseph, Y-Haven’s former director, attended CPT’s Shakespeare in the Park, he immediately sensed that Y-Haven clients should be on stage. A personal friend of James, Chip, insisted, “You have to do this!” According to Raymond, who co-developed the program with James all those years ago, “There is something shared among most people: having something inside that we desire to share with the larger world. And theater is one of the ways that you can do that in a very immediate and visceral way.” Last year, a participant told Raymond, “This is my third time in Y-Haven and my counselor asked, ‘What are you going to do differently this time?’ And I said, ‘I'm going to be in the play.’"
Many of the actors in the Y-Haven Theatre Project had never before set foot on stage. Samantha, who performed as one of the voices (or narrators) of In Our Wake said, “I've never had anybody clap for me. I was never in sports, so to get a standing ovation was awesome.” For others, such as Adam, who played Asher, a lifelong creative drive inspired him to try something new. Adam already knew he liked to write, “I had this inclination towards creative arts my entire life and I just didn't know where to apply myself.” He saw the chance to perform in a professional stage production as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity which he eagerly took.
Samantha Nelson has been a client of Y-Haven since fall of last year, joining the Theatre Program shortly after.
Obiekwe "Obi" Okolo
Gregory, however, has dreamed of being an actor since the age of 18. To be cast in In Our Wake was a lifelong accomplishment. Telling part of his own story, however, was uniquely challenging. “What made it hard was that I had to dig deep down inside me and say things about me that I've been through and my experiences.”
Writing the script was a collaborative process between CPT staff and Y-Haven clients, led by Melissa Crum. Three-to-five times a week, participants would shuttle to CPT for theater exercises and creative writing. “We kind of put them through all the theater training you could imagine,” says Melissa, “just telling stories and sharing stories and hearing where they're coming from and what's important to them and what they want to say.” Melissa says the writing is like creating a collage, taking the discussions in class and excerpts from the actors’ journals and transforming them into a script, ensuring that what is meaningful to the actors is being represented.
“One of the gifts of art itself,” she says, “is this ability to dive deeper into yourself.” She has watched residents uncover the simple, yet empowering truth of “I am creative.” For Asia, the assignments helped her discover a love and proficiency for creative writing. “Understanding those gifts is so healing to your everyday. And she's talking about now spreading those gifts into her family. And that's something she's sharing now with her children and passing on a tool you can use. I think that's so beautiful,” says Melissa.
Asia Worley performed the lead role of Amari in In Our Wake.
Obiekwe "Obi" Okolo
The actors’ decision to begin recovery at Y-Haven indicates a perfect posture for artistry. “I walk into this room with [people] who have made a decision to change their lives. That is really the position that all artists should be in, that we're all in the midst of change and exploration and discovery,” says Raymond. “Their willingness and the way they gave from their heart and from their true self was actually more compelling for me as an artist, to be in the room with a group of people who are just there to share and to give and to listen, and hopefully use this for their own transformation.”
In Melissa’s words, “There are pieces of us living deep inside that are inherently creative and attached to seeing the beauty in the world and each other. But somehow, over time, and for a myriad of reasons, we lose that sense of internal play. Just being invited to be in a group of folks and say, ‘We're going to do this silly thing and experience joy for the sake of joy’ is going to be the key that unlocks these other parts of ourselves that maybe have been buried deep down.” And, to do so in a community of people who understand the most difficult part of one's life is an experience the actors will remember forever. Greg says, “It's like being with your family every day with no arguing.”
Shaun, who performed the role of Preston, likens the process of discovery, playwriting, rehearsal, and performance to the growth of a flower, tending to the seed in good faith until the first sign of life shoots up from the soil. Recovery is also like a flower, and, as Shaun says, a moment-by-moment tending to one’s best interest.
“Don't give up. I'm saying it's hard and I know the fight is hard. But you just got to bear down and come to the realization that you're tired”, Greg says. “[T]hen once you beat the disease, you can grow.” And just as flowers grow too large for the pots they first grew from, “We can't just stay in here and hide forever. This is a good place to come, get the tools that you need, and build yourself up. Just take it day-by-day, step-by-step and it'll work out if you want it to.”
Gregory Emory-White has always dreamed of being an actor.
Obiekwe "Obi" Okolo
"Love is always in our wake."
In Our Wake does not end in a tidy resolution. It is not tied up in a bow. Yet, we, the audience, are filled with hope. Amari makes peace with her mother at her grave, having missed the funeral and spent the night sleeping outside. When she leaves us, she’s starting again. She has had a coffee and she wants to change. She is trying. She will keep trying.
In a talk-back with the actors following the performance, friends, sponsors, and family members in the audience stand up to thank the cast. People still in recovery – still trying – share that they feel inspired to keep going. They believe, like Amari, they should try again, too.
The hope of what comes next, though not always certain, beats in the hearts of Y-Haven. Adam says, “I'm proud of all of us,” having maintained sobriety for the longest time since being a teenager. “[Sobriety] kind of changes everything, how you perceive the world, and how you approach it.” Samantha looks forward to feeling “normal” again. “I want to pay bills and just live my life and [not] worry about the addiction part.”
For the staff, too, the future is exciting. Y-Haven has secured funding for a major building renovation, coming this summer, centered wholly on the needs of the clients. Before the blueprints were even drawn, architects consulted with clients to ensure their wishes lead the design. There are plans for community spaces, a dramatic increase in natural light, and office reorganization to make staff easier to find.
Still, Ed believes there is always more to do to better serve their clients. “It feels like there's an endless amount of need here just in Y-Haven.” Within about a mile of the Y-Haven offices, about a thousand families are living in public housing, many of them experiencing the same struggles as Y-Haven clients. Ed hopes to eventually offer their services to these people right outside their building. “There's no end to the amount of work you can do in this area. So, we just want to get better at it and learn more and try to offer what we can to support the folks.”
Shaun Drake, Y-Haven client and actor, used his gift for creative writing to express his experience with the cast.
Obiekwe "Obi" Okolo
In the meantime, Y-Haven remains a fortress for good, providing a place for respite, recovery, and resurrection to hundreds of people, year after year. For Shaun, the empowering comfort found in the theater, alongside the cast, inspired a poem, featured in the program of In Our Wake. “I see it as a poem of love,” he says, “a poem of togetherness, a poem of laughter, a poem of a life of joy.” To him, the piece reflects the delight and relief of rehearsal, having something wonderful to attend to while life’s distractions and the outside world are set aside for a moment. It is a quiet, perfect portrait of what freed hearts are capable of when given the grace, opportunity, and bravery to try.
See the dances of a fortified bond
Accompanied by melodies of soft, meaningful conversations.
Hear the resounding beats of endless laughter.
The continuous pitches create harmony to the heart.
Feel the cadence of peace.
Denote the joy radiating the moment.
The rhythmic tunes of love is always in our wake.
—Love Wake, by Shaun Drake
—Love Wake, by Shaun Drake