Once lost, Ann Thomas now helps others find their way
Ann Thomas of Bloomington knows what it means to hit rock bottom. She found it early in life, shortly after addiction found her. Thomas was convicted of a drug-related offense and served 18 months in prison. She was a young mother, separated from her three children. And despite her college education, she was assigned to the prison cafeteria.
For a year and a half, Thomas did the dishes. Thousands and thousands of them. His salary was $ 15 per month. And while the indignity stung, that wasn’t the bottom line for Thomas.
She was released from prison earlier and found work in a factory. But soon after, Thomas fell back into his old ways, tempted by the presence of two drug houses on his only block. Thomas’ mother, who had taken in her children while Thomas was in prison, kicked her out.
“I’m not going to see you die and neither do your children,” she told Thomas.
“Ann is a living example of what we hope for when we talk about second chance.”
Judge Carla Barnes
Thomas was ordered not to return until she was clean, and the children were given strict instructions from their grandmother: if your mom comes, don’t let her in.
Thomas remembers thinking that his mother just needed time to calm down, as always. So she waited a few days before knocking on the door. On the other side, her eldest daughter Whitney asked who was there.
âWhitney, it’s mom. Open the door, âThomas remembers saying.
âMom, I can’t open the door,â Whitney replied.
“Grandmother won’t care,” Thomas promised her.
âMom,â Whitney said, âplease go. “
It was the bottom. Separated from her children with no home to return to, Thomas slept on friends’ sofas, and eventually on the streets. But even at the bottom, she continued to use drugs. Thomas was locked in a vicious cycle which she said can be difficult for those who haven’t been there to understand.
âPeople think we don’t care about our kids when we use. But the pain I felt at not being a part of my children’s lives – that’s why I continued to use it. Because it was so painful, âshe said.
This pain peaked on a winter’s day as Thomas sat on the steps of what she described as a crack house. His mother passed by with Thomas’ children in the back seat. For a moment, it seemed no one saw her. But then Thomas stared into his daughter’s eyes. âAnd she looked at me, and I looked at her, and tears rolled down my face,â Thomas said.
Thomas last used drugs on January 19, 2000.
Nowhere to go but up
Thomas entered residential treatment at Chestnut Health Systems and began to rebuild his life. Part of this process involved rebuilding trust with her mother, who wasn’t quite ready to abandon her grandchildren.
âShe was tougher than any Department of Child and Family Services,â Thomas said of his mother. âBecause my children had suffered enough. They had seen enough. And I had to prove myself.
So Thomas got a job at Burger King. She would take a cab to the restaurant every morning at 4 a.m. to get ready for breakfast. She earned her Food Service Certificate and worked her way up to the position of Breakfast Manager. It wasn’t glamorous, and it wasn’t easy.
âBut it was worth it,â Thomas said. âIt was so worth it. To have a salary, to work hard for what I wanted with my life.
And what Thomas wanted more than anything was a life with his children. His mother eventually allowed them to return home to Thomas. But Whitney – who once had to push her mother out the door – wouldn’t go.
Now a mother herself, Whitney lives with her husband and two sons near St. Louis. She remembers not wanting to live with her mother, in part because she didn’t want the kind of life she had seen her mother lead. And Thomas was the first to encourage his daughter in that kind of thinking, Whitney said. âDo the opposite of what I do,â her mother said.
So that’s what Whitney did. Her mother wanted her to come home, Whitney stayed with her grandmother instead. The move caused a rift between the two, but Whitney would simply remind her mother that by challenging her, she was actually following Thomas’ advice.
Thomas admitted that of all his children, Whitney had suffered the most. All Thomas could do to make up for it was to set a better example. She quit her job at Burger King and began a well-paying career at a financial services company. Eventually Thomas was able to buy a house. She put Whitney through college. She began to behave in a very different way.
Thomas had worked for the company for 12 years when she began to suffer from chronic health problems. After four surgeries in a year, she was unable to work and had no choice but to go on disability. In some ways, the timing was fortuitous. Thomas ‘mother, the woman who had given him so much in life, was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. And it was Thomas’ turn to take care of her.
After the death of his mother, Thomas decided to embrace the role of caregiver in a broader way. She returned to Chestnut health systems, where she had previously received treatment, to help others on the road to recovery. Thomas has become a liaison with clients in specialized courts, guiding people through the same legal process that she once had to navigate on her own.
Thomas said she felt a call to lead by example, to demonstrate that change was possible. She did this by showing her clients what it was like to transcend the mistakes of the past.
âI have to be on the other side,â Thomas said. “Instead of being in an orange jumpsuit, I was in a business suit.”
In his work with the courts, Thomas has impressed both his clients and his colleagues. Justice Carla Barnes, at the time Chief Defender for McLean County, said Thomas’ work to overcome her past made her a valuable guide to others.
âAnn is a living example of what we hope for when we talk about second chances,â said Barnes.
Thomas loved her role as a navigator, helping people find their way to a second chance. But she was very grateful that she could provide a better life for her children.
âAnything I can do to help them be successful is what I’m going to do. Because they gave me another chance to be their mother.
Whitney and Thomas talk to each other every day, often more than once. Whitney said the two are best friends and she takes pride in how hard her mother has worked to make up for the past. âPeople, when they meet her, they don’t believe that she has the past that she has,â Whitney said.
But it’s Thomas’ past and her willingness to learn from it that makes her so special, Barnes said. Without her past, Thomas “wouldn’t be the person she is today,” she said.
Today, Thomas continues to work as a navigator, guiding people on the road to recovery in a new role with the Bloomington-Normal Treatment Center. She also dreams of opening a sober living center where she can help formerly incarcerated women to re-establish themselves in the world.
Thomas said her kids always tell her she will have to slow down, that she can’t save everyone. Thomas has an answer to this:
âOne life at a time,â she said.