Nancy Brown stepped into the Gaudenzia West Chester House in 1989 to turn her life around. Now, Brown is 33 years into her career of helping clients with substance use disorders turn their lives around at the same facility.
“I love what I do,” said Brown. “And I know it makes a difference.”
Brown is the food service supervisor for Gaudenzia’s residential programs in West Chester – Gaudenzia West Chester House, Kindred House and Concord Place. Along with her one assistant, Brown cooks and serves three hearty meals each day to 80 men, women and children in the programs who are affected by substance use disorders. Accommodating dietary and religious needs, she infuses global cultures into each menu so that clients can have a taste of home while at the facility for recovery.
“Any place you go, the heart is the kitchen because people look for that comfort,” Brown said. “They look for that nurturing. They look for the flavor, and they eat with their eyes. So, I always prepare meals that remind them of home, that remind them of their culture, that remind them that things are good.”
“Nancy is the heart of the [West Chester] programs,” said Gail Hannah, Eastern Region Director for Gaudenzia. “Her unconditional love and commitment to the clients and the staff over the last 3 decades is to be commended.”
Before working at Gaudenzia, Brown was an executive chef, caught in the hustle and bustle of the hotel restaurant business. However, as she spent more years in the business, it became harder on her body and mind as a person in recovery.
As a child, Brown took care of her mother who was a recovering addict, and Brown was often the mediator among altercations between family members. She also worked through a difficult marriage at a young age, which led her to an even darker time in her life.
“It caused me to run the streets, drink and do all kinds of things,” Brown reflected. “I was a very functional addict, and I knew I had gotten to the point where I started moving to another side of my life. I wasn’t brought up that way.”
At age 28, Brown decided she had enough and entered the Gaudenzia West Chester House for treatment. After completing a 10-month program at Gaudenzia, Brown was offered a job as a chef at the West Chester House. She told the director she would stay for a year.
One year eventually turned into 33. Brown said being a mother figure to the clients in Gaudenzia’s West Chester residential programs is what keeps her going.
“A lot of the members who come here didn’t have the nurturing and upbringing,” she said. “So I bring them that nurturing and that mothering through food.”
It’s no wonder then that the clients look up to her as “Mom,” and come back to visit her days, months and years after graduating from Gaudenzia. Parents of clients have called Brown and expressed their appreciation for her taking care of their children, she said.
Brown remembered one client shedding a few tears after he tasted a sweet potato pie that she made.
“He said it reminded him of his aunt’s pie—the taste of it and the flavor. And it brought back memories of him and her,” she said.
She said she learns from clients every day, which helps her continue to navigate her personal recovery journey. She especially tries to learn from clients who return to Gaudenzia after already completing treatment.
“Sometimes we have members that come back, and I’ll say, ‘What happened?’ And they’ll say, ‘Oh, you know what happened.’ And I’ll say, ‘No, really, tell me what happened.’ As a recovery person, I need to know what they did and how they got back in here so that I don’t make the same mistake.”
Passionate in giving to the community, Brown also wraps hundreds of gifts and bakes thousands of cookies for community members each year and becomes Mrs. Claus during the holidays. Celebrated for her 30 years of service at Gaudenzia, Brown was honored in 2019 with a citation from District 19 state Sen. Carolyn Comitta for making a difference in the lives of those in recovery.
Three decades in, Brown plans on continuing to make a difference.
“I’m getting older now, but as long as my body holds up and I still have the love for what I do, and I know that I’m making a difference…I’m going to be here.”
Those who are in need of treatment can call Gaudenzia’s 24/7 Treatment and Recovery Helpline at 833-976-HELP (4357).