Stephanie Johnson, director of the New Hope-based Recovery House, poses at the facility in this Dispatch file photo. She is resigning after 30 years working at the organization. Photo by: Dispatch file photo
November 11, 2018 1:35:20 AM
Nearly every time the board of trustees for Recovery House meets, Executive Director Stephanie Johnson is there with a letter from a woman who has been touched by the program.
"They may be somewhere else and have been out of there for a while, and we'll get a letter about their lives being changed and what it meant to them," said board president Nell Bateman. "And that just does your heart good."
Since its founding in 1985, Recovery House, a local addiction treatment center for women, has served more than 1,500 women in Mississippi - many of them under Johnson, who has worked at the center nearly as long as it has been in operation.
Johnson has been at the helm as executive director since 2001, applying for grants, working with counselors and overseeing more than a dozen women at a time living on the center's 90-acre campus in New Hope while they work to kick their addiction and get their lives back on track.
But after more than 30 years at Recovery House, Johnson has resigned as executive director, effective Dec. 31, to take the same position at S.A.F.E. Inc. in Tupelo.
While it was a hard decision, Johnson said she's excited to continue her work building women's self-esteem and self-confidence in a new place.
"I just have so much passion for helping women to succeed," she said.
From the helped to the helper
Johnson began volunteering at the center in 1988 under then-director Josie Fannon, who Johnson said was her mentor. It was the year after Johnson went through the program herself.
Johnson didn't talk much about her own struggles with addiction, but said Fannon and others at Recovery House helped her through it, inspiring her to find ways to help other women.
"That's where my passion came from," Johnson said. "What was given to me, I wanted to be able to give to someone else. ... I feel like it came from someone reaching out and helping me and my life changing so much."
Fannon applied for a grant creating the position of administrative assistant, giving Johnson a full-time job. At that time, funding was low and everyone pitched in to "get this program going," Johnson said.
"I tilled the front yard in order for them to put down grass seed," she remembered. "We all did things like that. We just worked and did what we had to do."
When Fannon left in 2001, Johnson took over her position.
"Stephanie has meant so much to Recovery House," Bateman said. "She came through the program, she has worked there, she has been the leader there for so many years now. It has evolved through the years with the same goals in mind and the same heart for what they're doing. ... I just can't say enough about how much we all appreciate her, and I speak for the board and those people who work there, those women who've gone through the program. It's made a difference in so many lives."
Women at Recovery House undergo a 90-day residential program of addiction treatment, after which they may stay in transitional housing for several months while working.
Of the different addictions Johnson has seen, she said addiction to crystal meth is particularly common and hard to shake.
"It's such a strong addictive drug and it affects the nervous system," Johnson said. "... A lot of women struggle to stay here because the cravings can be extreme. They feel really anxious and when they come in, they're unable to sleep. So getting them really grounded and stabilized is very important."
Women in the program undergo therapy and counseling in both group and individual sessions. One of the things that has changed most about treating addiction since the 1980s is that treatment has become more focused on addressing underlying traumas instead of just treating the addiction, something Johnson said Recovery House embraced under Fannon.
Those traumas can include anything from loss of a loved one or divorce to sexual abuse and domestic violence, said Johnson.
There are plenty of stories that stand out to Johnson from her time at Recovery House. She knows a woman who went through "many years ago" who is now managing two local restaurants; a veteran currently struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder who is working with counselors who are experts at addressing trauma; and women who came in as teenagers with nothing but a GED who went on to attain college degrees after leaving.
Many of the clients have come back to work for the center. Others have gone to work for similar organizations. Johnson mentioned two former clients now working on the coast, one as a therapist and one as a drug treatment coordinator.
"She refers a lot of her clients to us," Johnson said.
Recovery House has never held fundraisers, receiving most of its money from local, state and federal grants.
In the past, the bulk of the funding came from two grants from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which totaled $375,000, that Johnson began securing after becoming executive director.
However, she said, in the past two years, HUD has begun rolling back its funding for transitional housing programs, meaning Recovery House lost $250,000.
On top of that, Johnson said, state and local funding has dried up. Recovery House has been receiving less money from United Way of Lowndes County, something she said is happening with all local nonprofit organizations.
"We've just been struggling, especially for the last two years, financially to be able to continue doing what we're doing without changing so many of the services we provide that are very important to our clients in order to go out and remain clean and sober," Johnson said.
The funding cuts have particularly been hard on transitional housing programs. Where before, Recovery House could offer long-term help with child care and transportation to and from jobs, those programs have been scaled back.
Bateman said the board is looking for other fundraising options.
"We do know that that's something we're going to have to do," she said.
Part of the reason Johnson is moving to Tupelo is to get married. Her husband-to-be's work will take him all over north Mississippi, so it's easier for him to be based out of Tupelo. Being there will also keep her closer to some of her children.
"I had gotten to where I was just ready for a change," she said. "... I've done this for 30 years, so I felt like it was time for me to step aside and let someone else come in that has that energy and ... take Recovery House to the next level."
She added that passion she had to help women is something she'll carry with her to S.A.F.E., Tupelo's domestic violence shelter. The organization is run similarly to Recovery House and deals with many of the same issues.
"So often where you have domestic violence, you will have drugs and substances or vice-versa," she said.
Bateman said the board has already begun the application process of finding a new director.
"We'll be looking at what Stephanie brought to the job as our outline," Bateman said. "Because she's done such a good job. We need to use her as our example for the next director of the program."
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