VENTNOR — Several former Miss Americas grabbed a bite to eat Thursday ahead of another night of preliminary competition in Atlantic City, but the trip was for more than just the food.
A group of recent and iconic Miss America winners stopped into Enlightened Café on Ventnor Avenue to talk about treatment and support services for people who struggle with addiction or substance use disorders.
“Most of us in here have been touched by substance abuse,” said Miss America 2000 Heather French, who explained how her father, a Vietnam War veteran, developed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and a substance-use issue after returning home. “It knows no boundaries.”
French was joined by Miss Americas Lee Meriwether (1955), BeBe Shopp (1948), Maria Fletcher (1962), Katie Stam (2009), Vonda Van Dyke (1965), Judi Ford (1969), Susan Powell (1981) and Nina Davuluri (2014).
Jennifer Hansen, owner of the café, CEO of Enlightened Solutions and co-founder of the Hansen Foundation, opened the dual restaurant and recovery support center in Ventnor last summer.
The front part of the building houses the restaurant, which features menus with dishes made from locally-sourced organic produce and holds live music, poetry and other events.
Meanwhile, the back part of the building provides space for 12-step meetings, family support and grief groups, yoga, meditation and other classes.
Café profits go toward funding scholarships for people who cannot afford addiction treatment.
Detox, treatment, counseling and sober living services are offered through other Hansen Foundation and Enlightened Solutions centers and programs in South Jersey.
As a person in long-term recovery from heroin for more than 20 years, Hansen said she wanted to create a place where people could feel comfortable and safe in their addiction recovery.
“I never really imagined what could happen, but what’s come together has been life-changing,” she said. “And it’s really appropriate to have Miss Americas here because that’s what you’re all about, bringing change to communities.”
Many café staff members are in recovery themselves. Sam Loyle, who performed and spoke to the Miss America group, said it was with Hansen’s help that she was able to get addiction treatment, recovery housing and a job that has led to success in living a sober life.
“I’m so grateful to be sober today, and this is so much more than a restaurant to me,” Loyle said.
The former Miss Americas are in town for the Miss America preliminary competitions and the televised finale Sunday at Boardwalk Hall. Although all the women ran on platforms for different causes during their prior competition participation, they all acknowledged that addiction was something that is everywhere.
“It’s so inspiring to see the steps taken here,” French said. “The café workers here are a great inspiration for us. This (addiction) is part of our lives, not our whole lives.”