Former Miss Americas had an enlightening lunch Thursday, as several gathered at the Ventnor eatery that offers a place for those in recovery to work and get help.
The Enlightened Café is the latest in several businesses built by Jennifer Hansen, who has covered the spectrum from housing those just out of rehab to giving them a place to work.
“You’re a great inspiration for us,” Miss America 2000 Heather French told Hansen.
The year-old café’s work hit close to home for the now-deputy commissioner for the Kentucky Department of Veteran Affairs, who said she currently has a family member struggling.
“Most of us in here probably in some way have been touched by substance abuse,” said French, who pointed to her own father’s battle with addiction that was fueled by the Vietnam veteran’s Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. “It’s important every day that we are helping someone make a difference.”
Hansen told the women the story of her addiction and how she had to go to California to find the environment she needed to get clean in 1996. When she returned home, she couldn’t find a community or the services that were available on the West Coast. So, she called her sponsor.
“If it’s not there, then you have to build it,” Hansen was told.
And build she did. What Hansen eventually built includes two Hansen Houses with 70 beds, nine Serenity Houses and an Enlightened Solutions Treatment Center.
But the results of her work were evident beyond buildings Thursday, as the women who work there shared their talked of their own battles, and the safety they have found in the restaurant that gives them a chance to help one another and others.
Sam Loyle said Hansen offered her help after she was rejected for treatment everywhere because she had no insurance.
“She basically scholarshipped me through treatment,” the Absecon woman told those gathered Thursday.
Then, she offered her work. First, at a farm where she was handed a shovel.
When Loyle balked, she said Hansen said to her, “How bad do you want to be sober?”
“I guess I’ll be shoveling poop,” Loyle replied.
Now a manager at the café, she said she gets to help people every day while working in a place that understands her recovery has to come before everything else.
She had her own hiccup along the way in her longterm recovery, but she learned more about herself through it. And, no matter what, she continued to have the support of Hansen and those around her.
That includes co-workers and friends who greeted her with tears in their eyes after she shared her story with the former Miss Americas and sang for them.
“I was just so impressed by her,” said Lee Meriwether, Miss America 1955.
Shift manager Marisol Colon, 48, said working at the café offers a safe place.
When she realized Thursday’s date, she was more excited about the gathering.
Thursday marked 15 months clean for her and co-worker Jordan Ashley, 22.
“To be here in this place with these Miss Americas,” she said. “Who’d have thought we’d survive this epidemic.”