The first time Else Pedersen walked into New Orleans’s Bridge House/Grace House, the drug and alcohol addiction center, she was a client. It was 1992, and she had hit rock bottom. She had owned a successful jewelry and accessory shop in the Hyatt Regency, but, as she puts it, she “drank it away.” She was unemployed, penniless and, for all intents and purposes, homeless. “Everything was falling out from beneath me,” Pedersen says. “My parents had gotten to the point of saying ‘no more.’ I knew I needed to do something.”
She found herself unusually receptive to treatment. “I can’t say I had a spontaneous remission, but I got it—I needed to change,” Pedersen recalls. After three months as a Bridge House/Grace House resident, she started working for the organization, bringing her retail expertise to its thrift-shop operations. She acquired a powerful mentor in Richard “Buzzy” Gaiennie, the revered CEO of Bridge House—and himself a recovering addict. With his encouragement, she became a licensed addiction counselor. When Bridge House’s board requested that Gaiennie come up with a succession plan, he told Pedersen that he wanted her to interview for the job.
“I said ‘I don’t think so!’” Pedersen remembers. “But he said ‘It needs somebody who knows who we are and what we do, and who has a passion for recovery.’” She garnered an MBA and became the organization’s executive director in 2004. In 2011, after Gaiennie’s death, Pedersen took over as CEO.
The role puts her at the helm of a thriving institution that offers long-term residential treatment to 84 men (in the Bridge House facility) and 70 women (in two Grace House locations). Patients stay for up to a year. “We offer a safe place—a place of acceptance,” Pedersen says. “We serve anybody who needs us, and we’re just here to deal with their problems. We make them feel like they’re part of something important.”
The hard-partying, daiquiri-to-go culture of New Orleans makes sobriety a particularly difficult goal for clients. “This is a challenging culture for recovery,” she says. “The accessibility of alcohol is intense: people come here to drink.” Still, the organization boasts a significant success rate: a year after going out into the world, fully 70 percent of its clients are still sober. “It’s very moving to see somebody complete the program and reunite with their family,” says Pedersen. “Sometimes the ones who struggle the most are the ones who come out the other end not just compliant, but successful and happy.”
She is the first to admit that her job isn’t easy. “You feel tremendous responsibility to the people you’re here to serve, to the staff, to the board and to the greater community,” she says. “You want to do everything you can so that you can continue to exist. But I like that. I’m an alcoholic—I thrive on chaos!”
Pederson talks with pride about a visit to Bridge House by William Moyers—son of the TV journalist Bill Moyers and himself a best-selling author who has written about his struggles with addiction. “He came and talked to our guys, and I got a little emotional, watching them listening to him,” she says. “Twenty years ago, I was sitting in that seat. To be standing there and still sober—it’s a great feeling.”