By Jessica Eden
I walk slowly up the stone pathway that leads to a grand, Victorian house and knock gingerly on the giant picture glass door. It’s the type of home you gawk at and admire as you walk your dog down the tree-lined streets of Fort Thomas. Stately and welcoming. A smiling woman appears and promptly welcomes me in and cheerily says “Hi, I’m Annie! Nice to meet you!”
Annie Bennet just has a way of making you feel instantly welcome.
We settle in the living room to chat. Even though I write for a living, interviews still give me butterflies because, well, sometimes, you never know how an in-person interview is going to go...but with Annie, I felt at ease the moment she opened the door for me and I took that first step inside her home.
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Let's be honest, Annie could be the inspiration for “Wonder Woman” or a book or a movie. She has an energy that is positively explosive. She’s a go-getter. Throughout her life, she has remained driven and dedicated to her career and family — all the while, fighting a battle of her own.
You see, Annie is a recovering alcoholic. She has been sober for 31 years.
As a young, newly divorced single mother, she knew it was time to make a change. The first step she took after her divorce was enrolling in a program to help with her recovery.
“I got into recovery and the company I was with sold so I received a severance package which I used to attend graduate school. I admired My sister who was a social worker, so I decided to go for a Masters in Social Work,” said Annie. “U.K. had a graduate social work program out of NKU and while there I did a research project to identify gaps in services for women. I also had an internship in Bethesda’s Alcohol and Drug Treatment Program. My research identified the biggest gap in services was alcohol and drug treatment for women with kids.”
Annie’s dedication to finding (and closing) gaps in the system for addicted women led her to grant writing...which eventually led to the opening of First Step Home, a resource for women struggling with addiction. “A national survey by the Junior League in conjunction with AllState Insurance Company identified similar gaps in services for women. I used this info to apply for funding and worked on a federal grant for months that didn’t get funded.
I thought ‘well, I’ll do something else’ but then I received a $137 check from The Drop Inn Center with a letter which stated that these were funds left over from contributions they received to cover the costs of burying an alcoholic woman found murdered on the streets of Cincinnati and we feel like if there were programs like your proposing there would be fewer of these women” said Annie. “Then, the First Step Home was born - started by just a small group of recovering women. It was never just me, it was always a team. It was very much a calling. I had a sense of purpose and felt good about using my skills to better the community.”
After Annie got her masters in social work, she leased space in the former rectory (Camboni House) for St. Michael's Church in Lower Price Hill. Annie was elected as executive director of First Step Home with a starting salary of $18k a year. “We opened with under six clients in order to comply with building codes and then worked on raising the funds needed to bring the building up to institutional use standards in order to serve more women and their children. Initially, volunteers provided everything from staffing needs to food to counseling,” said Annie.
“As crack addiction and our waiting list grew, we were able to secure more funding and opened up another home in East Walnut Hills. The building at onetime had been an elegant residence for the Pogue family, but ended up converted to a nursing home prior to becoming vacated. First Step Home received The Historic Preservation Award that year for the renovation of this building.”
A short time later, First Step bought apartments on Liberty Street and later most of the houses on Fulton Avenue in East Walnut Hills to house First Step Home graduates. “Since many of the women served had dropped out of school and had few job skills and a criminal history, sober and supportive housing was needed for them to have time to get back on their feet and become self-sufficient by going back to school or gaining job skills,” said Annie.
Now, the First Step Home operates under a new name — Shelterhouse and many of the people involved in the development of First Step Home are now running agencies of their own.
“Arlene Nolan was the CFO at First Step Home and she is now the Executive Director of Shelterhouse, the largest homeless shelter in southern Ohio. Jennifer Goodin was the Development Director and she is now the Executive Director of The Ronald McDonald House. Georgine Getty worked in development at First Step Home and she is now the Executive Director of Our Daily Bread,” said Annie.
“First Step Home was always about reaching potential, whether you were staff, volunteer, or a client.”
Annie is still on the Shelterhouse board and Cheer Program Committee and her children acknowledge that the First Step Home was one of their mother’s greatest achievements.
“I’m sure you have already heard about the First Step Home that she started, but you really need to go see the incredible place they have made for women struggling with addiction,” said Teri. “It touches your heart to see how it changes the lives of the women and their children. Many of them would be dead or in prison if they didn’t have a place like this to help them. Knowing that my mom was a founder makes me feel so proud of her. She worked endless hours on grants, fixing up building to make it nice for the clients, took them on camping trips and just let them see that there is life without drugs and alcohol. If you can’t tell yet, I love my mom so much. It hasn’t always been easy but it got us to where we are today and I couldn’t be happier.”
By taking that first step towards recovery, Annie has, in turn, created a lasting, positive impact on countless lives. “My grandparents, Ruth and Ray Farager, Annie’s mom and dad, were people who always wanted to give back and that bled through to mom and her sister Teri,” said son Michael Plummer.
“They have both dedicated their adult lives to giving back and trying to help anyone they could. The web of lives my mom has not only helped but saved, is a miraculous feat considering she was an alcoholic single parent and could have easily stayed the course. I can tell you the numerous events I have been to that were honoring my mom and the countless people that have come to me to let me know that my mom has literally saved their lives...but it doesn’t stop there. These same people that have gone from drug and alcohol addictions that were not productive participants of society and now they are paying it forward by continuing in my mom’s steps and helping the next in line.
That is why I say she has helped countless people, because she has set the stage for all these people to do the same. I haven’t even mentioned the lives of the children raised by these people who are now role models for their children instead of someone they have to visit behind bars. It is sad because our jails are full of nonviolent drug offenders and if they don’t get help, it is a cycle for them and their children. It is hard to grasp the difference my mom has made on the people she has worked with and mentored over the last 30 plus years.”
As it sometimes happens throughout the long, winding path of life, Annie’s career sometimes led to less time for her family. This hard fact of life remains on Annie’s mind. “When I was young, I had three kids, worked full time, had an 18 hour internship and I was going to school,” said Annie. “My life was insane...and I missed so much with my kids. Now, with my grandkids, we’re at every sports game and we take special trips with them. We are very devoted to them.”
Life, admittedly, wasn’t easy as a single parent. Annie’s oldest daughter Teri Judy, often had to step forward to help with her younger siblings but Teri says her mother’s energy and drive kept the family moving forward.“Divorce is very hard on a family. I was about 12 when my father moved out. My mother was working full time for my grandmother’s company and then ended up going back to school to earn a degree in social work," said Teri. “For me, it was difficult because I was the oldest and helped take care of my younger brother and sister. What I admire in my mom is her unbelievable amount of energy and drive. If she says she is going to do something, she will do it no matter what.”
The youngest, Michael, admits that the challenges of a single parent household were there...but big sister Teri helped a lot. “If I am to think of challenges, the first thing that would come to mind is, as a young kid, how I survived all my sisters’ parties!” said Michael. “It really is a different lifestyle when you grow up with a single mom who works full time to support a family. I am sure we had all the same struggles as any family, but before my mom decided to enter a recovery program, there were definitely some rough times. To be honest, it would be my oldest sister Teri who dealt with all the difficulties of a single parent home because she was at an age where she could really help out by co-parenting.”
The one thing that all her children (and many grandchildren) agree on? She is an inspiration.
“Everything inspires me about my mom -- she has come so far and accomplished so many amazing things in her life, it is hard to pick one thing. The addiction obstacle she has overcome has definitely been what set the groundwork for all the amazing things she has done with her life and for others,” said daughter Christie Hosea.
“Since becoming Sober, my mom has become a different person and has helped so many others also change for the better. Starting First Step Home for women in recovery and giving these women all second chances at life was something I will always admire my mom for doing. She took a leap of faith when she saw there was a desperate need and a gap that needed to be filled in our community. She filled that gap and worked relentlessly to do so. Seeing my mother with my four children and the relationship they have is an accomplishment I hope to someday aspire to when I am a grandmother. Spending time with 'Big Annie' is almost a daily occurrence. She supports them all at their games, runs them to practices, picks them up at school and even helps feed them when I am in a bind. It definitely takes a village to raise kids and I am very fortunate that my village includes an amazing lady called 'Big Annie'".
So, for those of you who haven’t met “Big Annie”, how can we all describe her? I asked Teri, Christie and Michael how they would describe her in just a few words;
“Caring, Energetic, Driven, Inclusive, Adventurous,” said Christie.
“She is the energizer bunny with a heart as big as the world...with a touch of OCD!!”, said Teri.
“An inspiration that is god given to help those around her,” said Michael.
For me, I would say that Annie is larger than life and it was my pleasure to bring her story to life.