We Are Here: Annie Bennett on First Step Home and the Paradoxes of Life

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We believe in the power of storytelling and the importance of investing in the future by sharing those stories – whether they are stories of successful community ventures or lessons learned from stories of things you wish happened just a little bit differently. These are the stories of communities working together for the common good. This article is part of “We Are Here: Housing Insecurity in Cincinnati,” a series produced by Women of Cincy and originally published at womenofcincy.org/housing.

Interview by Becca Cochran. Photography by Angie Lipscomb. | In the early ’90s, addiction was on the rise in Cincinnati. Early gap analyses showed that resources for women seeking treatment for addiction and mental health was scarce.

Treating mental health and substance abuse issues in women is complex, due to the often co-occurring obstacles facing women, particularly mothers. Factors like childcare, safe housing, food insecurity, and healthcare – while paramount to treatment and sustainable recovery – were not accessible to women without an existing support system to help make the decision to seek treatment.

Annie Bennett, along with a group of women she met through her own journey of addiction recovery, decided that was a narrative to change. The “Founding Mothers,” as they’re now called, began work on what would become First Step Home in the rectory of St. Michael’s Church in Lower Price Hill. 

According to Annie, it was the only treatment facility at that time in Cincinnati that would allow women to bring their children with them. But for Annie, this element was critical to getting women the support they needed, removing one of their most significant barriers to seeking treatment: childcare.   

As First Step Home grew with the help of the Founding Mothers and their quickly honed grant-writing skills, it was able to provide individual and family counseling, mental health services, transitional housing, parenting classes, vocational counseling, and continued outpatient treatment.

First Step Home has now served thousands of women and children since its early founding at St. Michael’s in 1992, expanding treatment across 12 buildings with 67 housing beds and 16 residential treatment beds. Treatment now includes both residential and outpatient treatment, as well as a maternal addiction program which provides wraparound services to pregnant women and new moms recovering from addiction.

Annie, having served as First Step Home’s first executive director, now serves on its advisory board. We caught up with her on a day of particular self-reflection, her thoughts moving across the paths that led her to tackle one of our most complex social challenges. Here’s Annie: on addiction, recovery, transitions, getting out of your “self,” cookie crackers – and other paradoxes of life.

What is the story of First Step Home, in your words?

When we started, there was no place in Cincinnati where women could get treatment and bring their children (aged 13 and younger). That was a big barrier to women getting help: not having a place to bring their children.

My sister was a social worker and I had always been interested in this sort of thing. I went back to school to get my master’s, and for a project, I did a needs assessment in Greater Cincinnati. At the same time, Junior League was doing a regional gap analysis/needs assessment. Substance abuse treatment for women who had children was high on the priority list on both their survey and the personal survey I did.

I had the data to go ahead and try to start something. I applied for a federal grant to get a program started in Cincinnati. I worked two months on it, submitted it, and got rejected. So I moved on. But then I got a letter from the drop-in shelter (which is now Shelter House). There was a [homeless] woman who had been murdered in Cincinnati, and people sent in money to help pay for her funeral. And out of that fund – there was just over $200 left, I think – they sent it to me and said, “We think that if there are more programs like what you’re proposing, there would be fewer deaths.” So that was my sign I needed to keep going.

Tell me more about the Founding Mothers.

Everybody brought their skills to the table. There’s nothing like working with good people. Genuine people. Not driven by ego. [In thinking back on how this worked], I think part of it is just getting out of your own self. You don’t think about your own stuff – you’re thinking about making this happen and the quality improvement for the best program models for women.

What were you focused on when you started this work?

We always started out from a family systems approach. We always knew treatment was not just about an individual, especially with women. So, it was mostly a group of recovering women that were pretty passionate about this. We just started applying for funding and we leased spaced from St. Michael’s Church over in Lower Price Hill. People just helped until we could get the building up to code and the program certified.

Was it an intentional decision to include the children?

[With the family systems approach], it seemed like the kids stabilized the house. It seemed like with a focus on the children, everyone was able to connect in a really good way.

I was doing a group session with some women one day and I became so aware that they were never parented; they never had a time in their life when they felt safe, protected, nurtured. Some of these women were prostituted when they were 10 or 11 years old. You can’t give what you don’t have. If you’ve never experienced that in your life, how are you gonna give that to someone else? It has to be modeled. We all need models. That’s why it was important to me – recreating a sense of family, modeling healthy relationships with each other. We might not all like each other, but [we learned] how you work through those kinds of challenges.

Was there ever a time where you doubted whether or not it’d work?

All the time.

What do you tell yourself in those situations?

I remember starting the cookie cracker business. [Yes, Annie also launched and sold a cookie cracker business along the way – but that’s a story for another day.] I wanted an answer to come – “should I do this or should I not?” It’s hard. You really don’t know, and sometimes you don’t get a clear answer.

It just wasn’t black and white. But I don’t want to have regrets. I feel like even if you fail, you learn so much – you probably learn more from your failures. If everything in your life goes smoothly, you really don’t learn much. You learn from the obstacles in front of you. And we did. And we did a lot of good while we did.

But in starting [First Step Home], it was so clear to me. I had a purpose. Every day, I got up; I knew what I had to do. So there’s times in your life when it’s very clear and you know. And there’s times in your life when you don’t, and so you do the next right thing: put one foot in front of the other. It’s hard – those transitions period in your life are hard.  

Transitions. Based on what I know, and what you’ve shared of First Step Home, it sounds like the women and children who come here are experiencing large transitions. For them, what is life like? What does it look like before they arrive to First Step Home, while they’re here, and what is your hope when they transition out of the home?

At first, we thought we’d just do treatment at the home. But then we learned more about these women – some had dropped out of school; they had a criminal history; they didn’t have good healthcare.

Once someone is done with treatment, the obstacles are still there: no job, a criminal record. So we found that what these women needed was sober living, because they couldn’t go back into the communities they came from with drug use and violence – they’re pressured back into that behavior.

People always want a quick fix. Well, a lot of these women had been burned by institutions. They had been in and out of different places, and it takes a long time to build trust. I learned it was almost three months before [the women] would believe we actually cared about them, and the healing can’t start before that happens.

Addiction affects 10 to 12 percent of the general population, and it’s very democratic in terms of who is affected. But the difference is that most of the people with resources can get into treatment in the early or early-mid stage, so your rate of success is so much higher. When you get to later stages it drops – you’re a chronic alcoholic; you have less of a chance based on how the brain has been affected.

I want to ask you about that. There has been a lot of coverage on substance abuse and its relationship to mental illness, particularly as the opioid epidemic surges. Do you feel like there is a piece missing from the coverage? Are we still trying to understand how this all fits together?

It’s an interesting disease. But it is a disease. It was defined by the American Medical Association in 1957 as a “chronic, progressive, incurable disease characterized by loss of control.” Even then they knew. And there is such a moral stigma. It’s starting to go away, but it’s still there.

As communities across the country grapple with the opioid epidemic, can the same institutions that have typically handled health-related issues handle this alone? Do community-grown organizations like First Step Home have a role?

I think it’s a community effort. I always think about the mind-body-spirit connection. There is a physiological part of this. But there’s also a spiritual part, and I think that’s where the 12 steps known from AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) work. Church also works. As you make progress, you build confidence, and it becomes an upward spiral. Addiction is a downward spiral. A big thing is the provider – do they respect the client? That’s huge. And sometimes, people just need to hear, “You can do this. I believe in you.” So much depends on the people and their ability to connect with the people they’re serving.

Understanding there is no silver bullet to this, what do you think is our best shot?

Getting people treatment; having beds available when they’re ready. I read somewhere that the average person [struggling with addiction] relapses seven times. But each time they get treatment, it plants a seed. Yes, [treatment] costs taxpayers. But it costs taxpayers so much more not to provide that. The criminal justice costs. The foster care costs. What does that all amount to?

What have you learned in working to establish First Step Home?

I think about all the paradoxes in life: The more you give, the more you get. Working through pain, you find joy. I don’t know how it works, but it does work that way.

You realize you can’t discount anybody. You don’t know who is going to say the thing that you need to hear to get you through that day. You might think you’re helping somebody and they’re helping you. It makes you grateful – seeing what you don’t have and how blessed we are. People inspire me – to see people walk through their struggles.

What’s next?

I want to do art. I majored in undergrad in printmaking.

We’ll stay tuned for an art studio from you, then.

Oh, well, I really don’t do art, yet.

Well, we won’t count you out.

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