Women Through Their Ages: Ode To Ollie Mae
Susan Stader – A Lesson on Love and Life-Saving
By Marlisa Mills
“One cannot consent to creep when one has an impulse to soar.” ~ Helen Keller
Helen Keller may have said it originally, but if you ask Susan Stader, the above quote might have come straight from the mouth of the woman she credits with making her the woman she is today. The Founder and CEO of Next Step Recovery, Susan has no hesitation, when asked about her life story, to give credit to the nanny whom she believes loved her enough to play hard ball – and taught her to do the same.
Susan was born and reared in a Jewish family from Spartanburg, SC. One of three children, her father died when she was young and her mother was overwhelmed at being left with such responsibility. Enter Ollie Mae Burnside – the African-American nanny. And Ollie Mae had no small task when it came to bringin’ up Miss Susan.
“It couldn’t have been easy for her,” Susan laughs. “I was a terror.”
With little supervision, Susan was in trouble early. “By the time I was twelve,” she says, “I was playing around with drugs. No one was paying attention.” No one, that was, except Ollie Mae.
“Ollie Mae was everything to me,” Susan said. “When she was gone, I would sit at the window and cry. She took me to Sunday School with her … me, a little Jewish girl—the only white child in a sea of black faces. One day, she saw another black nanny with a little white girl. Ollie Mae ran up to her, introduced herself, and arranged a play date so I would have a white friend.” She laughed. That little girl and I are still friends today.”
By age 16, Ollie Mae had taught Susan the first lesson in tough love. She packed Susan up and shipped her across the country to a therapeutic boarding school. “It was a school that couldn’t exist today,” she explained. “The therapy included things that are now outside the boundaries of accepted therapy—and should be. We were locked away for hours and shamed and kept up all night. It was a typical ’80’s experiment that was so controversial.” She grinned. “But it worked for me.”
I asked her if she missed home during the three years she lived at the school. “Not really,” she said, “There was actually nothing there for me.” Her eyes twinkled. “Except Ollie Mae.”
Susan thrived in the boarding school environment and was taken under the wing of an influential mentor in the community. “He believed in me and taught me,” she said. “I got a good education. Well, actually,” she threw back her head and laughed, “don’t ask about my math skills. I was married before I knew a quarter from a half.”
After graduation, Susan went to work with handicapped children. She then joined a former counselor in a drug treatment center, working in Tuscany. The therapy bug had, as they say, bit. She found that she loved the work and was good at it. And she began to realize that she wanted to do more than focus on her own life. She wanted to help other people.
Susan and her husband, Hans, lived and worked together in Italy until Susan began longing to return to school.
“I had never been encouraged to get more education,” she said. “In fact, I was taught that I really didn’t need to continue my education. I began to realize that if I really wanted to get somewhere in helping other people, and have any credibility at all, I had to go to college.”
And so Susan and Hans returned to the United States. After searching for educational opportunities, they found themselves back in the south, in Asheville, only a few miles north of home. And Ollie Mae.
Susan and Hans added two children to their family—daughter Valentina, now 20, and son Drew, now 17. Susan studied. “It took me ten years to complete my education,” she laughed. “But I did it.”
After graduating with a master’s degree in counseling, Susan went to work in an area agency for the treatment of young people with addiction. She discovered she loved the work, but realized along the way that there was a better way to assist substance abusers in getting back into “real life.”
Susan knew what she had to do. She dreamed of starting a program that would help men after getting through drug and alcohol treatment to stay clean and sober and transition back into the community as strong and healthy members of society. She dreamed of a program that offered a fuller definition of “recovery.” She began exploring. She began collaborating. Her plans were for a men’s transitional house. At the start, women were not on Susan’s radar.
“I liked working with the guys,” she explained. “They’re so appreciative and down to earth. The gals—well, that came later. And took some real convincing.”
Susan put her plans into action. She found three houses which had been built by a local non-profit for sober houses and were never used. She used the money she inherited to lease two of the houses and opened a new transition house for men. Soon she leased the third house. It was designed to be a place where authentic things took place. It was to offer a stepping stone for those on their way back from addiction. It was The Next Step.
I had to ask about the money. Did she regret spending her inheritance on her business venture—and on a non-profit, of all things? The smile again. “The money was never mine,” she said. “It was merely ‘lent’ to me by the Universe for the purpose of helping other people. I’m just grateful to have had the chance to start something that I believe will continue to grow and help people.”
In May of 2006, Susan Tezler Stader opened the doors of Next Step Recovery. May 1, 2006.
It was Ollie Mae’s birth date.
As Next Step Recovery for Men grew, Susan was urged by members of the community to open a similar program for women. At first she resisted. “I just thought, no,” she laughed. I felt there would be more problems working with the women.” But finally, she relented and in 2009, Next Step Recovery for Women was birthed and moved into a beautiful spa-like resort in Weaverville.
The women’s program quickly took off and became as active as the men’s house. Although smaller, (the men’s program houses thirty and the women’s, ten,) the program has seen steady growth and in October of 2012, moved from Weaverville to Verde Vista Apartments in Asheville.
“We loved our home in Weaverville,” Susan said. “But we were a long way from the bus line and from the area where the girls could get jobs and volunteer in the community. We chose our present site because of its beauty and location. It’s the perfect place for us right now.”
Susan and Next Step have the reputation for being tough cookies. There’s no slacking off in these programs. Susan expects things to be done right. Lesson 101 from Ollie Mae. “If you’re going to do it at all, well, do it right.”
I inquired about the fact that Next Step is a comparatively expensive program compared to what many people believe is the stereotype for drug addiction. Susan was quick to offer an answer.
“Addiction is addiction is addiction and recovery is the same, regardless of who you are,” she said. “The stereotype of addiction affecting only the poor and homeless is still around, but it’s far from the truth. We offer a program that offers the best guidance and support possible in the field. We’re a non-profit and we depend on fees and an occasional grant and what money we can raise. It’s easy to open a house for people in recovery and offer only living space. We offer real hope.”
So what’s next for Susan Stader and Next Step Recovery? “Stabilize stabilize stabilize,” she replied. “We took a ten-year project and accomplished it in half the time. Now our job is to continue to make ourselves the leader in the field and offer to our employees and to our client family the best a non-profit program like ours can offer.”
I had just one more question. I asked her what would have happened to her if things had been different—if she hadn’t been given a chance to escape the childhood that could have led to tragedy. Her eyes got big. “Without Ollie Mae?” she asked. “I can’t even begin to imagine what it would have been like if Ollie Mae hadn’t been there.”
Susan cared for Ollie Mae in her final years. “It didn’t begin to pay her back for all she’d done for me,” she said, with tears in her eyes. “Not even close.” Ollie Mae died at age 101.
“I think the key is for women not to set any limits.” ~ Martina Navratilova
Ollie Mae didn’t say that either, but, knowing Susan Stader, I suspect that she just might be getting that message, whispered from heaven. Keep urging her on, Ollie Mae. Your Susan is making a difference in this old world. From the hundreds she has helped and will help in the future, I’m sure a whisper goes back. Thank you. Thank you.
Marlisa Mills is a clinical social worker and program director at Next Step for Women. She lives in North Asheville and is a writer, animal lover, and would-be vegetarian. She is again writing the monthly Women Through their Ages column for WNC Woman. If you know a woman who should be profi led, contact her at email@example.com.
Next Step for Women is in its new home at Verde Vista. On March 15, there will be an open house and art show for area substance abuse professionals. Susan, also an artist, will show her work, as will the residents of and staff of Next Step. I’m not sure, but I suspect Ollie Mae will be there in spirit. Smiling. And glad her tough love worked out. Just fine.