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Gratitude House alumni return favor, speak with rehab residents

Nancy McConnell was a heroin addict.

She also was a prostitute and the section of North Dixie Highway near Gratitude House, just north of downtown, was “my little spot,” she says.

“I needed to get help and I got to the point where I was 46 and I went in there and they took me in,” she says, her voice cracking. “I get emotional,” she explains.

“I had no life skills, no social skills, nothing. I couldn’t talk to people. I’d been literally in and out of the judicial system my whole life and out on the street. They talked to me and gave me the confidence I needed as a woman.”

Now 51 and celebrating five years of sobriety, McConnell works as program director for Dignity House, a halfway house in North Palm Beach and is one of a group of loyal alumni who return to Gratitude House frequently to offer hope to the residential treatment center’s current crop of addicted, alcoholic and abused women.

“I just want to instill the hope in them that it doesn’t have to be this way, that their life can change,” says McConnell, who is now a state-certified addiction professional, has a degree in human services and is a year away from a degree in social work from Florida Atlantic University.

“This is my life now,” she says. “I spent up to my 40s just playing around and no responsibilities and a lot of trauma and drama. I love my life.”

For all its burgeoning condo towers, hipster cafes and reviving neighborhoods, variations of the former Nancy McConnell walk the streets and live behind Dumpsters or in parks throughout West Palm Beach.

Currie Park, a waterfront park little more than a half-mile from Gratitude House, has become a virtual encampment for homeless people, as have public spaces throughout the city. Police make prostitution busts up and down Dixie Highway. Panhandlers populate I-95 exit ramps.

So the new Nancies, who know the territory and know there’s a way out, are welcome return guests to the place that saved them. The residential treatment center, at 1700 N. Dixie Highway, has 29 beds, including 13 for women 18 and older, 12 for mothers with infants in treatment together and four for women with HIV/AIDS. Typically the residents stay for months.

Dika Mack Qamar, a sales manager for Dillard’s in Wellington, says she has returned to Gratitude House frequently in the 10 years that she has been sober.

“I started doing cocaine and within six months I was completely addicted and completely out of my mind,” she says. “By the time I got to Gratitude House, I had spent a month or two wishing I was dead, not being able to look at myself in the mirror. Utter, utter misery.

She’d come from a wonderful family and had two beautiful children, 8 and 10 years old at the time, but had reached desperation.

“When I got there they instantly gave me a feeling of dignity,” Mack Qamar says. “That’s just a powerful word. From that point, I could start to forgive myself for all of the core issues in my life, for all the pain.”

The center’s counselors offered suggestions for changing her life, some of which she didn’t agree with, she says.

“When I go back and speak to the women, I tell them those suggestions are commands from the lifeboat. When you take suggestions from the team at Gratitude House, your life is like it’s meant to be without chemical dependency.”

Her children missed her but knew she needed to get happy, she says.

“Their life has changed because of that decision I made 10 years ago,” she says.

The center’s alumni recently decided to form an alumni group, formalizing the relationship they’ve had with each other but also pressing to get even more involved. But returning to the center, and the center calling them up to return, has been a key part of the Gratitude House tradition for years.

Every month the center has an anniversary day in which women who used to live there come back to celebrate their sobriety. “I’ve seen women come back 15, 16, 17 years later, whatever month they got sober, and talk to girls,” McConnell says.

Every Christmas, a group of alumni go in at 5:30, 6 a.m., before they celebrate with their families, and make “a huge breakfast” for the women who are still in treatment and can’t be with their families, she adds.

This year, 19 alumni made the breakfast, Mack Qamar says. A couple of them brought their daughters, as she did.

“It’s so uplifting for the women there,” she says. “Some have been there three weeks, they’re missing their kids. It’s a beautiful thing. There’s nothing I would rather do on Christmas morning. No Hawaiian vacation could be better than that.”

Emily C., an alumna who asked that we not use her last name, says she’s been going back to the center to speak since completing her stay in 2008.

She’d gone from graduate school and teaching to drinking and living behind a Target Dumpster near Linton Boulevard. Sadly, she says, her addiction had taken her to the point that she was OK with that.

“Gratitude House was the last house on the block for me,” she says. “I had just reached bottom, physically, spiritually, emotionally.”

When she returns, she says, she talks about “how life lived on life’s terms, without doing anything mood- or mind-altering, is doable. Life is not easy, but it’s doable. And the quality of life is so much better. And I want to convey that to the ladies — just hang in there, life does get better.”

“As an alumna, I’m there to encourage the ladies that you can do this, because I’ve been exactly where you are and I’m still here.”

Today Emily teaches at a Palm Beach County elementary school and is studying for a master’s degree in counseling.

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