The sun wasn’t the only bright light Tuesday as Kevin Simmers addressed the crowd gathered for the official opening of Brooke’s House Coffee and Chocolates in Hagerstown’s South End Shopping Center.
“We are really about having a therapeutic community and empowering ladies to come through,” he said of the sober living home’s latest enterprise. “The future is bright for them, and they can achieve absolutely anything they want.”
Simmers’ daughter, Brooke, dreamed of getting clean so she could manage a sober house for women, but she died of a heroin overdose at age 19 on April 14, 2015.
Simmers, a former Hagerstown narcotics officer, worked to fulfill his daughter’s dream, and her namesake 16-bed sober living facility off Downsville Pike opened in 2019 as a place where women receive treatment for substance abuse and learn life skills in a safe environment.
Board of Directors Treasurer Nick Varner told the crowd at the ribbon cutting that the coffee and chocolates shop, which will provide revenue for Brooke’s House programs and job training for residents, is a worthwhile part of the overall program.
“We believe it’s very valuable and important and a big part of the sustainability of Brooke’s House, and (a way) to procure the best opportunity possible for the women that come through this program,” Varner said.
He noted that one graduate joined the board of directors the previous evening as part of the goal for graduates to “run, manage, lead and direct Brooke’s House.”
A crowd of about 50 people representing local government, churches, law enforcement, the courts and other supporters gathered outside under an enormous American flag hung from a crane to hear Brooke’s House officials thanking those who helped make the new coffee and chocolates shop possible.
How did the idea for the shop come about?
In an earlier interview, Simmers said the journey to opening the shop began when he shared his story and his vision for Brooke’s House with Martha MacCallum during a 2018 appearance on her show, “The Story,” on Fox News.
He said his supporters were already making chocolates to sell as a fundraiser when Mike Griffin, a chocolate merchant in Cape Cod, Mass., saw him on TV and offered to show them how making chocolates could grow into a revenue stream and provide paychecks and job training for residents.
Griffin traveled here and shared his expertise, Simmers said, and when Brooke’s House opened, the residents began making chocolates that sold by word of mouth and through local businesses.
Sales grew to the point that they needed a brick-and-mortar store, according to Simmers.
It took about a year and “north of $350,000” to renovate the spaces for the shop in a former storefront and neighboring former bank at 1081-1083 Maryland Ave. in the shopping center. The project was funded by chocolates sales, donations and grants, Simmers said.
It opened Dec. 7 and has done well so far, he said.
One side houses the chocolates production and sales area as well as the coffee bar. The other side is set up like a dining room with tables and chairs enough to accommodate 50 people, and can be closed off as a separate space that is available to rent for alcohol-free gatherings, according to Simmers.
The sales display cases are filled with an assortment of confections including fudge, covered pretzels, truffles, nonpareils, peppermint bark, drizzled popcorn and dipped Oreos. Coffee and espresso is available.
A large patio is under construction out back.
‘It all started over a cup of coffee’
Posted throughout the bright spaces are uplifting messages such as “The secret ingredient is always love,” and “There is always hope.” One wall includes “The Starfish Story,” where a man tells a boy tossing beached starfish back into the ocean that he can’t help all of the creatures, and the boy replies, “I made a difference for that one.”
Working at the shop has made a difference in the life of 29-year-old manager Amber Harkins, who ironically ended up at Brooke’s House because of a cup of coffee.
When she was in another treatment facility in Dorchester County, she accidentally bumped into another resident and spilled her coffee. The other woman said she couldn’t be mad about it because she had just been accepted to Brooke’s House.
After she explained what Brooke’s House was all about, Harkins prayed that she could go there too.
“God definitely answered my prayers,” she said. “It’s crazy that it all started over a cup of coffee, and now I’m the manager of the coffee shop.”
Harkins took up the golden scissors and cut the ribbon at Tuesday’s ceremony.
After years of drug and alcohol abuse and failed attempts at sobriety, she will graduate from Brooke’s House on Friday and celebrate 8 months of sobriety on Jan. 13.
Her work in the coffee shop was a big part of her recovery.
“I didn’t expect to be so trusted,” she said. “It just gives me so much hope because I had this opportunity to prove myself.”
Sara Dyson, 40, found her sobriety at Brooke’s House after 10 years of abusing painkillers originally prescribed for a broken leg.
“Kevin and (his wife) Dana are very involved and the staff treats you like family,” Dyson said. “They literally love you and tell you to love yourself, because a lot of girls come in here and they don’t.
“It’s an awesome program.”
Dyson has moved to working in the coffee and chocolates shop from the Brooke’s House junk removal business.
“It gives me a purpose,” she said.
Like Harkins, Dyson said Simmers’ trust in her was a major part of her recovery.
“I was driving his personal vehicle, the dump truck and the box truck,” she said. “Not too many people are going to let you do that when you’re an addict.”
On Jan. 21, Dyson will also celebrate eight months of sobriety and is set to graduate from the program on Jan. 28.
What’s this junk removal business? Are there any other Brooke’s House businesses?
Simmers said the junk removal business grew out of staffers going out to collect donations of household goods and sometimes finding them unusable. They would offer to haul the items to the landfill in exchange for a donation.
Sometimes donated items that Brooke’s House doesn’t need are too good to throw away, so that led to offering them for sale through the thrift store that now occupies a large space at 1001 Maryland Ave. in the other end of the shopping center from the coffee and chocolates shop.
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The different enterprises give Brooke’s House residents options for therapeutic work that they’re most suited for, according to Simmers.
New residents initially work at all three places while they are being evaluated to find the best fit, he said.
Simmers has no formal training in addictions treatment, but said that “God’s got his hand on us.”
“My wife and I are grieving parents trying to do right by our daughter and trying to make sure that ladies don’t have to go through what our daughter went through,” he said.
The community has supported Brook’s House in spirit and in substance.
Simmers said that recently he was sitting in traffic exiting a shopping center parking lot when he noticed a panhandler receiving a few dollars from the car in front of him.
When the man came up to Simmers’ car, he recognized him and offered him the money he had just received, saying that he had lost his sister to a heroin overdose.
“Now if that’s not God working, man, you tell me what is,” Simmers said.