A Day at the Alley Cat Café

Kristin recalls the afternoon when a troubled woman came into her Ithaca café. The woman had apparently just split up with a partner and was feeling the stress of managing her house and raising her children. “A cat came and laid on her chest, and she just started weeping,” said Kristin. “It was the first time she felt loved in a really long time.”

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Welcome to the Alley Cat Café on East Seneca Street, which has become a surprisingly popular downtown community hub since opening last June. As its name suggests, the establishment is a café, which offers drinks and tasty delights for customers who want to lounge for a while and for those on the run alike. But it is especially a haven for rescued cats with names like Luna, Ginny, and Mack, and Penelope and Millie Joy, who have their own large glassed-in quarters in the rear of the café where customers can play with them ($5 per 30 minutes) and adopt them if they wish.

Café owner Kristin, 36, who prefers to go by only her first name, has been rescuing abandoned and abused cats for two decades. She also runs Browncoat Cat Rescue, a volunteer organization that first took strides in 2012 to find and support abandoned cats in Ithaca to find new homes; Browncoat provides the cats for the Alley Cat Café and collects the $100 adoption fee. To date, according to Kristen, more than 20 cats rescued by Browncoat have been adopted from the Alley Cat Café.

At any given time of day, customers will be sipping a cappuccino or drinking tea in the front of the café while a handful of others will be canoodling with kittens in the back. You’ll see students popping in on the way to or from class, young lovers on dates, and parents with tons of kids in tow, all eager to hold a cat and take selfies with the feline menagerie.

There’s Freddy, with brown and black fur, and Clarissa, a ginger cat, who love to jump around with visitors. Among the most calming and relaxing cats is a sweet ginger kitty named Strawberry, the kind of cat who purrs on you, goes to sleep, and gives you the kind of connection many people need, Kristin said. Sitting on your lap, this kitten purrs at a healing frequency—the feline happiness helps heal human hearts, Kristin said.

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Everyday customers can enjoy a menu including items like lentil spinach soup and almond chocolate cupcakes. There’s also a long list of hot and cold beverages, many of them feline-themed (and served up by purr-istas, of course): The Cat Lady (mocha latte with lavender), The Black Cat (French press coffee with double espresso shot), and the Meowcchiato (double espresso with a dash of frothed milk).

Special events also bring in the crowds, such as Knitten’ Mittens with Kittens, Slow Flow Cat Yoga, craft afternoons, and board game nights (Exploding Kittens, Cat Stax); the café also hosts talks about gender, sexuality, and healthier relationships.

The cats, meanwhile, have their own entertainment: besides cuddling with their affectionate human visitors, they enjoy a Romper Room of high perches, hideaways, and meandering obstacle courses that allow them to leap or just sleep as they like. In December, Kristin inaugurated Movie Night—for the cats—with a film about bird watching.

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As the story of the weeping woman indicates, the Alley Cat Café functions as a de facto animal therapy space. “There are a lot of people who are missing their friends, or a sense of connection, and just being able to connect with our cats meets their needs, even if it’s just for thirty minutes,” said Kristin.

Kristin goes so far as to say that some customers reported significant improvements in their mental health after visiting the Alley Cat Café. “Multiple people would thank us for the effects on their emotional health and said that us being here has kept them from self-harm and literally saved their lives,” Kristin said.

Families who have adopted cats from the café also report benefits. One family adopted a cat for a 5-year-old girl who was having trouble making friends. “She was able to blossom as a person and improved her social skills with her peers,” Kristen said. The café also runs a cat foster program where people can take a cat home for a limited period of three months, which Kristen says has been popular with law and engineering students.

Alley Cat Café has proved a success with young and old. In a Facebook comment in November @IthacaAlleyCat, Lyn Stone wrote: “I love what you do! I’m 82 years old and don’t travel much but my granddaughter is coming in from Colorado in early December and I can’t wait to bring her to your café.”

—By Amber Raiken

Amber Raiken, an intern at The Sophie Fund, is a junior at Ithaca College majoring in Writing, with a Creative Writing Concentration, and minoring in Education Studies. She is a writer and the social media director for IC Distinct Magazine, a student-run culture and fashion publication.

Photos courtesy Alley Cat Café

Mental Health and People of Color

The BOLD Women’s Leadership Network was founded by Ithaca College’s president, Shirley M. Collado. It is an initiative developed for young women underrepresented in higher education and passionate about social justice issues. The nine women chosen as Ithaca College BOLD Scholars for the 2018–19 academic year designed a program called Engaging Mental Health for People of Color (EMPOC).

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BOLD Scholars with Ithaca College President Shirley M. Collado (second from right)

Ithaca College’s first-ever BOLD cohort collectively chose to create EMPOC with the mission of creating a physical space for people of color on campus to de-stress and that provides comfort in discussing stigmas of mental health.

Mental health for people of color has become a popular topic throughout the media and within various communities of marginalized groups. This topic has a different affect on people of color because they experience racialized economic and social barriers that result in lack of resources and support of mental health.

For minority groups, mental health correlates with systems of oppression and that is why it is such a difficult conversation to have with family, friends, or even institutions. BOLD Scholars recently organized introductory discussions on mental health facilitated by an Ithaca College alumna, Rita Bunata—a social media event on self-care, pop-up de-stress events, and an R&B yoga night. They also co-facilitated a discussion on sexual assault and healing with Stephanie Nevels, a counselor at Ithaca College, and organized a showcase for art by people of color,

At the weekly meetings, BOLD Scholars discuss and organize every event as ways to shift the conversation to be inclusive of underrepresented individuals and focus on creating a space to serve the mental health needs of people of color. As the cohort includes women of all backgrounds, they collectively discuss the importance of education on this topic by creating things like fliers with information on mental health and others specifically for allies who are not people of color.

“We need to be able to talk about specifically through a racialized lens, what mental health looks like for people of color,” said Belisa Gonzalez, director of the Center of Culture, Race, & Ethnicity at Ithaca College and the BOLD Scholars faculty mentor.

For programs like EMPOC, it is difficult to know exactly how effective the conversation is or be able to know about positive outcomes from these events. Gonzalez describes this as a lingering question: “How do you measure changing the hearts and minds of people?” The very first event organized by EMPOC was facilitated by Tynesha Wright-Lindo, a clinical social worker at Cornell University, which received a large audience and effective feedback, as students felt, “This is what I needed.”

EMPOC will carry on as an Ithaca Collge student organization in its own right once the current cohort of BOLD Scholars graduate. Chasia Bambo, a BOLD scholar majoring in Biology and Accounting, hopes that the future of the program will “become less known as a project for women of color and more for people of color,” encourage more men of color to participate in events, and “to delve into the different issues that can impact the wide range of people of color.”

—By Chanelle Ferguson

Chanelle Ferguson, an intern at The Sophie Fund, is a sophomore Bridge Up Scholar at Ithaca College majoring in Writing and minoring in Journalism and African Diaspora. She is a writer at IC View, Ithaca College’s alumni magazine, and a student assistant at Career Services.

Art Therapy

Alex sits across from her therapist, tapping her foot anxiously on the floor, not speaking. Her therapist looks empathetically at her, and asks if she could possibly describe her feelings at the moment. Alex keeps her eyes on the floor, and shifts her position uncomfortably. The therapist wonders if she can recount her experience reconnecting with home friends with whom she shared a traumatic middle school experience. Finally, Alex looks up and begins to tell her story.

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Cast of alex getting better

Alex is the main character of alex getting better, a play written by 21-year-old Audrey Lang, a junior theater studies major at Ithaca College. The play was performed last fall in The Dillingham Center, home of Ithaca College’s theater program. Throughout the play, Alex, a college student, begins to work through and come to terms with being a young woman who was a victim of sexual assault in middle school. She had not thought about this traumatic episode in her life for a long while. She chose to bury the memory of a boy she had once been friends with and who had touched her and her friends in a way that was unwanted and inappropriate.

Lang portrays the diverse approaches that victims of sexual assault can take toward healing. Some of Alex’s friends had repressed the memories and remained friends with the assailant; others had forgiven, and moved on. Throughout the play, the feelings of shame, discomfort, and paranoia are visceral and perturbing as we watch Alex striving to work through her fears, accept the trauma, and learn to let go.

In the Fall 2018 semester, Lang wrote a 10-minute play for a theater class, which served as the backbone for alex getting better. She based the story loosely on trauma she had experienced in her own life, while asserting creative control in the play when necessary. Lang found the content to be relevant, informative, and universal, as she has known many women and girls who have dealt with similar forms of assault.

Because the play dealt with intimate, triggering, and vulnerable content, Lang made sure that she and the cast and crew members felt safe to voice their own personal stories during the time they were delving into Alex’s journey of recovery. “I chose to work with all females,” said Lang. “There was an all-female cast as well as an all-female rehearsal room. These events are so deeply related to things women and girls are dealing with. But, I wanted the play to be seen by people of all ages and genders.”

This performance not only gave Lang a platform to voice a traumatic event that happened to her depicted through her play, but it also gave the cast members a chance to empathize and vocalize similar occurrences that happened in their lives. This presents significant benefits of theater; the community and support that the participants in the play receive, as well as the chance for the playwright themselves to share and perform experiences for an audience to empathize with.

Lang has been a writer for as long as she can remember. In 2016, prior to alex getting better, Lang wrote another play about issues young women face, Dear Anna, which was performed with MCC Youth Company’s FreshPlay Festival and with the Ithaca Theater Collective. “I always loved writing,” said Lang, “but I was always mostly interested in dialogue and human interactions. Theater can bring life to stories in a way that feels more real because you are actually seeing the bodies.”

Rather than solely working through her struggles and experiences on her own, Lang and many other playwrights who create plays about mental illness or sexual assault work through their pain with a medium that enables others to be fully present with them when they are most afraid and vulnerable. This advocacy work is personal and intimate but the themes and issues addressed are universal. Lang chooses to write her plays about marginalized groups to give these people a platform to share their stories. “Typically, my plays are about women,” she said. “Especially queer women. I try to show them in places of strength and complication.”

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Audrey Lang

In theater, the audience can become engrossed with the story in a way that can indulge most of their senses, while also having a space where one is allowed to become emotional and vulnerable. “Theater should be educational and entertaining,” said Carin Etsy, an Ithaca College senior who directed alex getting better and is also a playwright who has written autobiographical pieces about sexual assault. “It forces you to be more engaged because, unlike watching a movie or reading a book, you can’t just leave. Theater is a continuous act; you have to sit there and be faced with another’s experiences and emotions.”

—By Nicole Kramer

Nicole Kramer, an intern at The Sophie Fund, is a senior Writing major and Sociology minor at Ithaca College. She is a nonfiction editor for Stillwatera student-run literary magazine. She also enjoys creating mixed media image-text work and writing poetry. 

Meet Our Interns

Hello, Friends of The Sophie Fund! We’ve been fortunate to work with three interns from Ithaca College’s Department of Writing during the Spring semester. Look for their articles on local mental health heroes and other topics in the coming weeks.

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Amber Raiken, Chanelle Ferguson, and Nicole Kramer

Amber Raiken is a junior majoring in Writing, with a Creative Writing Concentration, and minoring in Education Studies. She is a writer and the social media director for IC Distinct Magazine, a student-run culture and fashion publication.

Chanelle Ferguson is a sophomore majoring in Writing and minoring in Journalism and African Diaspora. She is a writer at IC View, Ithaca College’s alumni magazine, and a student assistant at Career Services.

Nicole Kramer is a senior Writing major and Sociology minor. She is a nonfiction editor for Stillwater, a student-run literary magazine. She also enjoys creating mixed media image-text work and writing poetry.

Send Silence Packing @ Ithaca College

Backpacks were scattered all over Ithaca College’s Emerson Suites on Monday. No, this high-traffic space wasn’t a convenient dumping ground for students taking mid-terms or heading to the cafeteria for a meal. The backpacks were a powerful exhibition called “Send Silence Packing,” a suicide prevention initiative traveling to American college campuses. The 1,100 backpacks represent the average number of college students who die by suicide every year.

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“Send Silence Packing” is a project of Active Minds, a national organization promoting student mental health through branch chapters at colleges around the county. Ithaca College’s chapter, led by co-presidents Zoe Howland and Mikaela Vojnik, hosted Monday’s exhibition in Emerson Suites.

The display is immersive and thought provoking. Each backpack includes a personal story or a quote from someone who has lost a loved to suicide. “I feel like the visual display really invokes a certain feeling that just talking about it doesn’t necessarily do,” Howland said.

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“There were a lot of people who came through on the way to their classes and were really intrigued with all the stories that were on the backpacks,” said Active Minds member Kristin Butler. She said that the event was an opportunity for “continuing the conversation on campus, which is great.”

Junior anthropology major Paige Twinning commented: “Powerful and important. The visual representation and personal profiles of individuals really made an impact.”

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“Send Silence Packing,” which has visited almost 200 campuses and reached nearly a million people, is intended to generate discussions about suicide and provide information about suicide prevention resources.

Ithaca College’s day-long event, sponsored in part by The Sophie Fund, began at 7:30 a.m. and included an evening Speak Your Mind panel discussion on suicide prevention moderated by Active Minds member Kelly Madden. Participating in the panel were representatives from key local mental health organizations, including the Suicide Prevention and Crisis Service, Mental Health Association in Tompkins County, National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Finger Lakes, and the Advocacy Center. Said Kaylee McGillicuddy, a sophomore psychology major: “It’s just nice to know there are people who care.”

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Based on surveys, the Active Minds national organization reports that most people attending the “Send Silence Packing” installation are left wanting to know more about mental health, and 95 percent of attendees rate the experience as powerful.

Active Minds has chapters or other operations on more than 600 college campuses across the country. In June, a study of Active Minds published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry reported that student peer organizations’ activities can improve college student mental health attitudes and perceived knowledge and significantly increase helping behaviors.

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The Fall 2015 National College Health Assessment, in a survey of 19,861 students at more than 40 American schools, reported that 35.3 percent “felt so depressed that it was difficult to function.”

According to the 2017 annual report of the Center for Collegiate Mental Health, data collected from 147 college counseling centers showed that 34.2 percent of 161,014 college students seeking counseling in the 2016–17 academic year had “seriously considered attempting suicide.” The rate increased for the seventh year in a row, up from 24 percent in the 2010-11 academic year. The data also showed that 10 percent of the students seeking counseling had actually made a suicide attempt.

—By Margaret McKinnis

Margaret McKinnis, an intern at The Sophie Fund, is a junior at Ithaca College majoring in Writing and minoring in English and Honors. She is a nonfiction editor at Stillwater, a student literary magazine, and an assistant director of the New Voices Literary Festival.

[If you or someone you know feels the need to speak with a mental health professional, you can contact the Crisisline (National Suicide Prevention Lifeline) at 1-800-273-8255 or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741-741.]