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An occasional series from WGLT looking at how central Illinoisans search for (and sometimes even find) the elusive work-life balance.

Once lost, Ann Thomas now helps others find their way

Ann Thomas and her daughter Whitney in an undated photo.

Ann Thomas of Bloomington knows what it means to hit rock bottom. She found it early in life, not long after addiction found her. Thomas was convicted of a drug offense and served 18 months in prison. She was a young mother, separated from her three kids. And despite her college education, she was assigned to work in the prison cafeteria.

For a year and a half, Thomas washed dishes. Thousands and thousands of them. Her pay was $15 a month. And while the indignity stung, it wasn’t the bottom for Thomas.

She was released from prison early and found work in a factory. But before long, Thomas fell back into old habits, tempted by the presence of two drug houses on her block alone. Thomas’ mother, who’d taken in her children while Thomas was in prison, kicked her out.

“I’m not going to watch you die and neither are your kids,” she told Thomas.

"Ann is a living example of what we hope for when we talk about second chances."
Judge Carla Barnes

Thomas was told not to come back until she got clean, and the children were given strict instructions by their grandmother: If your mother comes around, don’t let her in.

Thomas recalls thinking that her mom just needed some time to cool down, like always. So, she waited a few days before knocking on the door. From the other side, her eldest daughter Whitney asked who was there.

“Whitney, it’s mommy. Open the door,” Thomas remembers saying.

“Mommy, I can’t open the door,” Whitney answered.

“Grandma won’t mind,” Thomas promised her.

“Mommy,” said Whitney, “please go away.”

That was the bottom. Separated from her children with no home to return to, Thomas slept on friends’ couches, and eventually the street. But even at the rock bottom, she continued to use drugs. Thomas was locked in a vicious cycle that she said can be difficult for those who haven’t been there to understand.

“People think that we don’t care about our kids when we’re using. But the pain that I felt at not being a part of my children’s life – that’s why I kept using. Because it was so painful,” she said.

That pain culminated on a winter day as Thomas sat on the steps of what she describes as a crack house. Her mother drove by with Thomas’ children in the backseat. For a moment, it seemed like no one saw her. But then Thomas locked eyes with her daughter. “And she looked at me, and I looked at her, and the tears just came rolling down my face,” Thomas said.

Thomas used drugs for the last time on Jan. 19, 2000.

Nowhere To Go But Up

Thomas entered residential treatment at Chestnut Health Systems and began the work of rebuilding her life. Part of that process meant rebuilding trust with her mother, who wasn’t quite ready to give over her grandchildren.

“She was harder than any Department of Children and Family Services could ever be,” Thomas said of her mother. “Because my children had been through enough. They had seen enough. And I had to prove myself.”

So, Thomas got a job at Burger King. She took a cab to the restaurant every morning at 4 a.m. to prep for the breakfast shift. She got her food service certificate and worked her way up to breakfast manager. It wasn’t glamorous, and it wasn’t easy.

“But it was worth it,” Thomas said. “It was so worth it. To have a paycheck, to work hard for what I wanted out of my life.”

And what Thomas wanted more than anything was a life with her kids. Her mother eventually allowed them to return home to Thomas. But Whitney – who’d once had to turn her mother away at the door – wouldn’t go.

Now a mother herself, Whitney lives with her husband and two sons near St. Louis. She recalls not wanting to live with her mother, in part, because she didn’t want the kind of life she’d seen her mom lead. And Thomas was the first to encourage her daughter in that kind of thinking, Whitney said. “Do opposite of what I do,” her mom would say.

So, that’s what Whitney did. Her mom wanted her to come home, Whitney stayed with her grandmother instead. That decision caused a rift between the two, but Whitney would simply remind her mom that in defying her, she was actually following Thomas’ advice.

Thomas recognized that of all her children, Whitney had suffered the most. All Thomas could do to make it up to her was set a better example. She left 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 carry herself in a very different way.

Thomas had been working with the company for 12 years when she began to suffer chronic health issues. After four surgeries in one 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’d given her so much in life, was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer. And it was Thomas’ turn to take care of her.

Second Chances

After her mother passed, Thomas decided to embrace the role of caregiver in a larger way. She went back to Chestnut Health Systems, where she’d once received treatment, to help others on the path to recovery. Thomas became a client liaison in the specialty courts, guiding people through the same judicial process that she’d once had to navigate herself.

Thomas said she felt a call to lead by example — to demonstrate that change was possible. She did it by showing her clients what it looked like to transcend the errors of the past.

“I got to be on the other side,” Thomas said. “Instead of being in an orange jumpsuit, I was in a business suit.”

In her work with the courts, Thomas made an impression on both her clients and her coworkers.Judge Carla Barnes, who at the time served as the chief public defender for McLean County, said Thomas’ work to overcome her past made her a valuable guide for others.

Thomas wedding
Thomas dances with her daughter Whitney on her wedding day

“Ann is a living example of what we hope for when we talk about second chances,” Barnes said.

Thomas loved her role as a navigator, helping people to find their way to second chances. But she was most thankful for the ability to provide a better life for her children.

“Whatever I can do to help them be successful, that’s what I’m going to do. Because they gave me another chance to be their mother.”

Whitney and Thomas speak every day, often more than once. Whitney said the two are best friends and she’s proud of how hard her mom has worked to make up for the past. “People, when they meet her, they don’t believe she has the past that she has,” Whitney said.

But it’s Thomas’ past, and her willingness to learn from it, that make her so special, said Barnes. Without her past, Thomas “wouldn’t be the person she is today,” she said.

Today, Thomas continues to work as a navigator, guiding people along the path to recovery in a new role with the Bloomington-Normal Treatment Center. She also dreams of opening a sober living facility where she can help formerly incarcerated women re-establish themselves in the world.

Thomas said her kids always tell her that she’ll have to slow down, that she can’t save everyone. Thomas has an answer to that:

“One life at a time,” she said.

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Sarah Nardi is a WGLT reporter. She previously worked for the Chicago Reader covering Arts & Culture.