Kathy Swanson Works To Help Wolfe Street Foundation the Way It Helped Her

It’s a blistery Sunday morning, and outside of Little Rock’s Wolfe Street Center, a few people finish their cigarettes before heading inside and gathering together in a large room. There are no stained glass windows here, no pulpits or altars. Instead of pews, people sit at long folding tables. Instead of communion, plates of scrambled eggs and Styrofoam cups of coffee are consumed. The twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous are framed on the wall like commandments. The people here walk a fine line between fragility and strength, but the mood is upbeat nonetheless. They greet each other with hugs, share photos of their children, laugh at old jokes.

For Kathy Swanson, there’s nowhere she’d rather be.

One of the Twelve Traditions, a set of governance guidelines that accompany the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), states that members of AA need always to maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio and film. “My story is my story,” says Swanson, who has been attending meetings, supporting and fundraising for Wolfe Street Foundation for almost twenty years. “I’m not trying to promote anything or breach anonymity. Wolfe Street was there for me when I needed it, and I want it to be there for others too.”

Swanson’s story begins when she was just a child, hiding behind her mother when one of her favorite uncles — usually a lovable, happy man — showed up at her house one night holding a can of Schlitz beer. He yelled and cussed. He was uncontrollable and his personality was unrecognizable. The family ordered him away, and in the morning, no one talked about it.

Years later, her two older brothers began to drink and experiment with drugs. When her parents traveled, Swanson would come home to find the kitchen tables covered with pills, bags of marijuana, pipes and alcohol. “All I could associate it with was my uncle,” she recalls, “so I did the same thing — I hid upstairs while they had parties.” As the boys reached college age, possession turned into distribution and manufacturing, and one of Swanson’s brothers was arrested. “The last thing anyone wants to admit is that a loved one is heavily involved with drugs and alcohol,” she says. “My parents knew these things were going on, but they assumed he would grow out of it or that it wasn’t a big deal. Their way of handling it was to keep it secret, hire an attorney and get it taken care of.

Swanson’s middle brother died tragically at age 23, and her father died just three years after that. Her oldest brother continued abusing drugs and alcohol until he passed away from natural causes at 39. “I was the fix-it person. My parents depended on me to be good when my brothers weren’t. They depended on me to tell them if my brothers were using. Sometimes I would lie to protect them, but I learned later that was a disservice to them.” In the face of tragedy, Swanson continued to fix things for her family, settling financial and legal matters while taking care of her mother. “Things were bad, and I had learned that when things got bad, you go have a drink, then you move on to the next thing.”

A few years later, she married a man who had lost a brother to drugs. He understood what she had been through, and together, they used alcohol to ease the pain. “One thing I learned later on was that we destructively take the examples that we’re shown growing up and use them when forming adult relationships.” Eventually, Swanson was ready to settle down and have a child, but the more pressure she put on her husband to stop drinking, the worse the problem became. When she gave him an ultimatum, the marriage ended. “I hit a bottom. All of the tools that I thought I had to control my husband’s drinking had failed.”

In 1986, a friend suggested that Swanson attend a meeting at Wolfe Street Foundation, a relatively new program for those dealing with the effects of alcoholism. “My first reaction was, ‘But I’m not an alcoholic!’” Swanson says. Her friend explained that Al-Anon was a support group for anyone who had been affected by the disease of alcoholism. “When I went to that first Al-Anon meeting, I learned the three C’s: I didn’t cause it, I couldn’t cure it and I couldn’t control it. That was a revelation to me.”

From that first day, Swanson recognized that she was welcomed at Wolfe Street, that it was a safe place where she could share what she was thinking or feeling without judgment. “When I walked through those doors, I didn’t see a color or a gender. I saw people with a common purpose.” She began to educate herself on the disease of alcoholism and how it affects not only the alcoholic, but everyone around him. “Throughout my life, I had enabled, denied, hid, investigated. My actions and reactions had affected others, and even though I wasn’t an alcoholic, I had developed certain characteristics from trying to invoke my will on alcoholics in my life.”

Attending meetings with the other members of AA and Al-Anon helped her to appreciate the depth of what these people went through to stay sober every single day. She realized there might be others like her who were dealing with a brother, a friend, a parent that was suffering from the disease, and she became passionate about supporting and fundraising for the organization. “In AA, the twelfth step says that ‘having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we try to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs,’ ” Swanson says. “If we give to others freely without anything in return, we are outside of our self. We give back because we are so appreciative of what was given to us.”

As a founding committee member for Wolfe Street’s annual Academy Awards Gala fundraiser, an Oscars watch party sanctioned by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Swanson is now in her 15th year of giving back. This year’s event is set to take place Feb. 22 at Chenal Country Club, and the funds raised will help the Wolfe Street Center keep its doors open 365 days a year.

“I lost my mother a few years ago, and I have no children,” Swanson says. “My family of origin is gone. Alcoholism affected my loved ones, and it certainly affected me, but what a gift that even with the losses I’ve had, I found this wonderful new family. I don’t look at them as alcoholics or addicts. We are a community of people who come together for the sole purpose of supporting one another, to carry the message of recovery, of hope, of life.”

At the Sunday morning meeting, Swanson smiles and waves as people enter the room. She asks how they’ve been, then sits quietly and listens as the microphone is passed around the room so that others may share their accomplishments or challenges from the previous week. In the back, a woman stands to tell her story — one of both struggle and relief. “Before I found God,” she says, “I found all of you.”

And the room replies, “Amen.”

Lights, Camera, Action! Academy Awards Gala
When: 5:30 p.m., Sunday, Feb. 22 | Where: Chenal Country Club
Tickets & Info: WolfeStreet.org, WolfeStreetLR@gmail.com

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