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Keeping his dream alive

They were all there for Aaik. Two years ago, thanks in large part to the vision of Aaik Van Munster, Café the Lodge opened its doors.

A standing-room-only crowd filled Café the Lodge's rooms March 21 to celebrate Van Munster's life and the Café's second anniversary. Van Munster, who would have turned 58 in March, passed away in October.

He served as Café the Lodge's founding director and the director of the Mental Health Recovery Lodge.

With the focus on finding housing and a job for people with mental disabilities, Café the Lodge, at 427 E. Fourth St., Southside Bethlehem, offers flexible jobs and daily recreational programs. While some members live at The Lodge, (short for The Mental Health Recovery Lodge of Northampton County), many live in surrounding rental properties.

Jackie Teitsworth, who replaces Van Munster as the Lodge's director, welcomed those who came to pay tribute to him.

"Aaik is too soon gone," Teitsworth said in describing Van Munster's battle with a difficult cancer, but his vision continues. His contributions as a leader of mental health recovery in the Lehigh Valley will not be forgotten, said Teitsworth.

Written and performed by Lodge members and supporters, there were poems, songs and a drum solo to honor the man who touched so many lives on their road to recovery from mental illness.

Wendy Heatley of Northampton County Mental Health dedicated a poem to Aaik that captured his enthusiasm for people. She concluded her verses with Aaik's answering machine message: "Hello this is Aaik. How can I help you see how great you are?"

Zulma, Aaik's wife, who remains involved with the Lodge's activities, thanked everyone for the scrapbooks filled with stories and pictures that helped her healing process.

To keep Aaik's spirit alive and to watch over the Café as it continues to grow, a portrait was hung on one of the Café the Lodge's walls. Artwork was provided by North-Carolina mural artist Patti Hricinak-Sheets.

For the Café's outdoor meditation garden, there is a hand-painted wall mural of a tree with its roots exposed also drawn by Hricinak-Sheets. Zulma pasted a yellow bird watching over the tree to symbolize Aaik's continuing presence. Other birds, which were pasted on by Lodge members and supporters, had messages of hope written on the birds' reverse side. There is also a bell chime for the garden contributed by Diane Roth, CEO of Resources for Human Development. Roth praised Aaik's contributions and his ability to challenge each person he met to dream more, but to be real with each other.

The garden is alive with spring flowers and a bench and plaque by the pond dedicated to Aaik.

As the Lodge celebrates its second anniversary, expansion is in its future. For the Bethlehem location, Ian Panyko, the Lodge's assistant director, says catering on-site and off-site will be promoted. With Chef Allen Singer in charge, the Café the Lodge staff will custom fit its menu offerings to the clients' needs, whether for a party of 21 or 150.

In addition to catering events, the Café is open for breakfast and lunch. Panyko said he appreciates the community support the Café has received. People walk in from the Greenway, enjoy the food and become volunteers or come back for one of the programs.

Step it Up, a free weekly walking program, is set to begin as the weather warms up. Other monthly programs, which are largely member run, include live music, drum circles, writers' and poets' night, mindfulness meditation, support groups, skill building classes and more. Most of these activities are open to the public.

For more information on Café the Lodge's programs, menu items, catering offerings and calendar of events, go to the Lodge's website at www.thelodge-rhd.org.

With the focus on finding housing and a job for people with mental disabilities, this spring the residential program will open seven one-bedroom apartments in Easton. For information, call 610-419-3318.