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Thursday, May 2, 2019

First Step Home: A Home Away from Home

By Laura A. Hobson

The only area facility that provides addiction treatment for both women and children is First Step Home (FSH), located on Fulton Street in Walnut Hills.  Mothers can bring their children, up to the age of 12, with them into treatment services.  The stated focus is on integrated care, physical and behavioral health, addiction treatment and mental health.

Choosing to enter recovery is a big step and a life-changing decision.  The program at First Step Home is designed so that pregnant women struggling with addiction can have a healthy pregnancy, healthy newborn, a healthy life  free from addictions and can become armed with coping skills and resources.  According to FSH’s literature, clients participate in individual therapy, case management sessions as well as trauma-informed therapy groups and parenting classes, all in a structured environment.

In May 2018, First Step Home celebrated its 25th anniversary with the Rose Gala, which raised $98,000.  

The Episcopal Church of the Redeemer in Hyde Park has several members involved in this ministry.  They include Jeanne Plunkett, who serves as mission champion from Redeemer.  She was invited to go on the board and served from 2011 to 2016.

Jeanne Plunkett, Jessica from FSH and Jeane Cole
Plunkett said, “People don’t know about it.”  Some women were afraid children would be taken from them, but that is not the case.  Clients are helped transition from treatments.  They move into residential living quarters, work to obtain a GED and find a job. 

There are two graduations with 15 graduates each spring and fall.  “It is a moving experience,” Plunkett said.  The goal for clients is to remain substance free for six months. 

Plunkett became interested in 2009 when a Redeemer mission fair featured several programs such as First Step Home.  She was looking for an organization that deals with women and children.  At that time her daughter Jessica Walther, was graduating from Miami.  “I needed something to focus on,” she said.  

She coordinated Christmas week and the poinsettia sale for several years.  During Advent, she sponsors a First Step Home Giving Tree, which had 60 cards on its branches for boys and girls.  Donors purchased toys and returned gifts unwrapped to bins near the tree.  Plunkett took the gifts to First Step Home and set up a Santa Shop where clients could choose gifts for kids up to  12 years old and wrap them. Redeemer members also go caroling at First Step Home in December.

Plunkett also served on the Development and Gala committees, each for four years.  In addition, she has been president of the Deupree House Auxiliary since 2012, as her father Chet Cavaliere lives there.  On the First Step Home advisory board are Redeemer parishioners Andrea Rogers, one of the founders; Dick Duval of East Walnut Hills, as well as Greg Ebel.  Active in the community, Ebel now serves as president and chief executive officer, Junior Achievement of OKI Partners. He finds the work of FSH significant and the organization a nurturing environment for women as they are enabled to be there with the children.  “To me, it doesn’t seem institutional,” said Ebel.  He contributes by seeking sources for fundraising. 

Jessica Walther of Hyde Park chairs First Step Home board.  A Macy’s manager in strategic sourcing, Walther became interested through the work of her mother.  “Over time, I decided to take a more active role,” Walter said.  “I enjoyed applying those skills to First Step Home.”  She recognized the organization deserves more visibility in the city.  She joined the board in 2017 as vice chair and became board chair in 2018.  It is her first board position.

Living area of First Step Home
Walther said she has learned a lot by working with a nonprofit.  She attributes part of her success to its president and chief executive officer Margo A. Spence, LSW, LIDC-CS.  The organization is trying to see how they can soar beyond its potential. 

“I saw great things done; helping women and children is our platform,” she said.  Walther recognized the stigma around addiction issues.  How one can be a mother and have a child is a sticking point for some clients.  Change, however, is always possible.  

FSH continues to do good work, according to Walther.  The board is looking at strategic planning and now meets more frequently.  As a grassroots organization, FSH continues to reach out to those in need.  Spence has helped Walther enable her vision and mobilize the board.  “They welcomed me with open arms,” she said. 

After her term finishes, Walther will step back, but remain active in the organization.  

Three to four times per year, Redeemer volunteers host dinners at First Step Home.  There are approximately 60 women and ten children at each dinner, held on Sundays.  

Spence said the newest project is the purchase of a 23-unit apartment building which provides additional housing for women located on Fulton Street.  It includes single bedrooms and studios.  CMHA and the City of Cincinnati are some of the partners, with the City providing funds to renovate the building.  It opened in February and provided another level of care for FSH’s clients.  

She said the agency is running in the black, but 2018 was difficult.  Buildings need repair.  

FSH clients are self-referred as well as court-referred.  Spence finds it challenging to work with five to six managed care organizations, particularly because they have their own billing systems.  Ninety percent of the clients are white; with the average age of 33.  Fifty-two percent are from Hamilton County, with the remaining from surrounding counties in the Greater Cincinnati area.  Women who achieve six months of sobriety and have income generation can step down to sober living for another six months of housing.

First Step Home began at St. Michael’s Church in Lower Price Hill in 1993. Several women -  including Annie Bennett and Mary Ann Heekin - saw the need for a treatment center dedicated to women with substance abuse disorders and co-founded FSH.  By 1997, FSH opened a new treatment facility named Turner House.  In addition, the purchase and planning began for renovation of the old Pogue mansion at 2203 Fulton Avenue, the main treatment building.  Gradually, FSH expanded its campus to include 12 buildings.  The Terry Schoenling Home for Women and Children opened in 2017.  Schoenling was the former director of development.  

“We will continue to pursue our mission to assist women seeking recovery and return them to society as productive citizens,” said Spence.

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