CLAREMONT, N.H. — The night after Samantha Vancedarfield moved to town, looking for a clean start, she wandered by an open door on Pleasant Street, the main drag in a small city hit hard by the opioid crisis.
Purple light streamed from inside. The sound of live music spilled into the street.
“What is this place?” Vancedarfield, 20, asked a group milling outside the club, called REMIX.
James Skinner, 43, turned toward her. A recovering alcoholic, he volunteers at REMIX and attends a biblical-based recovery group there on Mondays.
“It’s a coffee bar that is operating on donations and is volunteer-run. And it’s drug- and alcohol-free,” he said on that recent Friday night. “Come on in!”
Vancedarfield smiled and walked inside to order an iced latte with a thick hat of whipped cream. She sipped through a gleaming metal straw as she scanned the room, filled with friends laughing and talking as they listened to the concert.
For the past year, the cafe and social club has provided a sober alternative to the bar scene, a place for people who have battled addiction issues to come without any pressure to drink or use drugs.
“It’s not a culture of drinking and getting high here,” Skinner said after Vancedarfield went inside. “It’s right out here, right on a street where the opioid crisis is alive and well.”
The need is particularly acute in New Hampshire, where use of fentanyl, a drug 50 to 100 times more powerful than heroin, has taken a devastating toll. From 2013 through 2016, opioid-related deaths in New Hampshire tripled, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. In 2016, the state had the third-highest rate of deaths due to drug overdose, according to the CDC.
“In New Hampshire, where we’re living in this crisis state of opioids, we can create a space that people can feel a part of a community that’s not a club, but it’s a club,” said Claremont resident Jimmie Neilsen, who opened the cafe in spring 2017.
After struggling with drinking in his 20s, when he was a deejay on the Boston club scene, Neilsen gave up alcohol a few years ago and returned to his faith and his childhood town.
Neilsen, 37, works full time and is active in his church, but has made REMIX his mission in the hopes of helping others find their way to recovery.
“I am lucky because I remixed my life and changed it,” he said. “That’s what I am trying to do with this space, create an opportunity like that for someone.”
Instead of draught beer, the single tap at the bar hisses out cold-brew, fair-trade organic coffee. It’s good, hipster coffee-shop good, and patrons are urged to pay what they can.
For an iced latte, with a suggested price of $3.50, some pay $10 or more, while some pay $1 or less. Either way, the volunteer staff smiles as they whip up order after order.
“This is something I could do for the greater good of the town,” said Darcie Lucero, a volunteer behind the counter. “It’s something that’s needed here, especially in this area.”
Inside the club, patrons sat on couches and chairs, leaning against the bar and talking loudly over the music. Middle-age mothers with well-coiffed hair sat beside young men in band T-shirts and scruffy beards. Between songs, the crowd chatted, relaxed on a weekend night out. Few people checked their phones — always a sign of a successful evening.
“It’s a place that’s non-threatening,” said Joseph Renaud, 21. “A lot of my family is alcoholic and I’m around it a lot. For me to come here, I’m away from that. It feels like a home away from home.”
Several patrons said they had been addicted to drugs or alcohol, and that finding new friends was one of the hardest parts of sobriety. Some old friends no longer trusted them after years of theft and deception, and friends who were still using drugs posed too much temptation. REMIX offered a fun place to spend a Friday night out, especially for those vulnerable to relapse.
“People who are in recovery need some place to go that’s fun, uplifting, hip,” said Mayor Charlene Lovett, a REMIX regular who had come with her husband to enjoy the music. “This is it.”
In February, the city’s only drug peer recovery support center, Hope for Recovery, closed. Lovett and other community leaders worked to find the money to open a new site, which offers peer support and counseling, and secured that funding in July. Throughout the spring, when resources for residents with substance abuse disorders were scarce, REMIX provided an essential outlet, she said.
Each night’s proceeds support a different local cause. On Friday, the $405 profit went to help Daniel Bernier, who has advanced liver failure, and his family.
“I don’t even know half these people,” Bernier said before he trailed off, blinking back tears. “For people I don’t know to come together and do this for my family? It’s incredible.”
The community donated more than $100,000 in time, money, and materials to help Neilsen and his brother, a state trooper, build the cafe from scratch. It’s open for music and entertainment two Fridays a month and also hosts community yoga, addiction recovery, and support groups like Skinner’s.
Even the musicians, on this night a local band called Broken Veil, play for free.
“We get to help out and people get to hear us,” said Cody Larison, 21, a member of the band.
“You can still get the fun without the drugs, without the alcohol,” said Chad Blodgett, 37, a comedian who has performed at REMIX. “And look at all these people — not one of them is drinking and everyone is having a great time.”
As the night wound down, Vancedarfield slowly sipped her coffee at the bar, taking in the scene around her. After spending years in foster care and seeing drug addiction and domestic violence first-hand, she moved from West Virginia to live with her dad in New Hampshire.
Thin, horizontal scars crisscrossed her inner forearms like faded white shoelaces.
“I had self-harm,” Vancedarfield said. “That was my biggest addiction.”
In her new life, she wants to concentrate on her music and her poetry, a clean slate after a hard adolescence. Since moving to Claremont, she already feels more stable.
“I’m just here trying to figure out something new,” she said. “I’ve never been to any place like this before.”