Growing up in a middle-class neighborhood on Milwaukee's northwest side, Tonette Walker watched members of her family struggle with alcohol. She was 17 when her parents' marriage ended in divorce, causing her mother to turn to alcohol as a means to cope.
"Even now, I can still feel some of that pain when I hear these women talking," says Walker of the residents in Milwaukee's Robby Dawson Home for Women, a drug and alcohol treatment center that uses the faith-based Teen Challenge program to steer addicts toward recovery and Christianity.
Every first lady has a cause or two she uses her statewide stage to promote during her husband's time in office. The women's treatment center will be Walker's first.
In her first in-depth interview since her husband, Republican Scott Walker, became governor Jan. 3, Tonette Walker spoke with The Capital Times about her own connection to alcohol and why she believes endorsing a faith-based organization is a natural fit for her. Raised Catholic, she says faith continues to play a powerful role in her life. She and the governor, a born-again Christian, attend the non-denominational Meadowbrook Church in Wauwatosa.
"I will have quite a few initiatives. Some will be faith-based, others won't," says Walker, the special events director for the Milwaukee chapter of the American Lung Association. "I have a chance to further Teen Challenge's mission in the community, and whether its mission is religious or not, I am going to do it."
The first lady and the governor both say no state tax dollars will be used to fund the program.
Walker says she has been particularly moved by the fact that the women in the Robby Dawson Home for Women, a one-year-long inpatient facility, cannot have their children with them.
Walker says she plans to meet soon with the Rev. Craig Harper, the center's executive director, to discuss the scope of her efforts. Trying to incorporate children into the mix is at the top of her list.
"It would be awfully neat if we could do something like that in Milwaukee," she says.
If she's as committed as her predecessor to her chosen cause, Walker could have a real impact.
Former first lady Jessica Doyle, a former teacher, promoted literacy and was a constant presence at schools around the state.
Among other things, Doyle's efforts helped bring together the American Family Children's Hospital and the Children's Hospital of Wisconsin to expand Reach Out and Read throughout the state. The program provides pediatricians with books to give parents at routine checkups.
Founded in 1958 as a way to reach gang members in Brooklyn, N.Y., Teen Challenge slowly expanded its purpose to help alcohol and drug addicts. It now has roughly 200 treatment centers across the United States. Wisconsin has the Robby Dawson Home for Women and the Men's Center for Hope, both inpatient centers and both located in Milwaukee.
The women's 30-bed home opened in 1999. The sobriety program combines Christian teachings with the 12-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, which also encourages members to lean on a higher power as a means to sobriety.
Residents of the Robby Dawson Home attend scheduled programs from 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., Harper says, with time dedicated for one-on-one or small group sessions to work on Bible studies and Scripture memorization. The extensive use of religion in the Teen Challenge program is commonly referred to by program supporters as the "Jesus factor."
"We are Christian people trying to help addicts," Harper says. "We tell the people in the program, ‘We are not going to make you believe anything. We are going to present you with what Jesus taught and let you make up your own minds.' "
Walker's public support comes two months after former President George W. Bush, himself a recovering alcoholic and born-again Christian, was the keynote speaker for the 2010 Teen Challenge of Wisconsin banquet in Milwaukee. Tickets ranged from $100 to $10,000.
Bush pushed the envelope during his time in office by creating faith-based initiatives that allowed federal agencies to fund religious organizations working to solve such social ills as addiction and poverty. His administration funneled millions of dollars to religious organizations. Teen Challenge, like many other faith-based programs across the country, came under scrutiny at the time for being a recipient of the federal funds.
The nonprofit's image took a hit in 2001 when John Castellani, the Teen Challenge executive director, went before a congressional hearing and testified that Teen Challenge hires only Christians and that program participants often convert to evangelical Christianity. He added some Jewish clients become "completed Jews," meaning they convert to Christianity.
Its success rate has also been disputed. According to a study conducted by Northwestern University in 1994, 86 percent of Teen Challenge graduates remained drug-free, 84 percent attended church and 91 percent were employed. But critics put little stock in the study. They say the figures are now outdated and that the study did not factor in the program's dropout rate.
Although critics find fault with the numbers, Tonette Walker cites the program's success rates and the powerful impact the women's stories have had on her as reasons she decided to raise awareness of the women's treatment center.
Walker first met with the women at the Robby Dawson Home last summer. She then accepted an invitation to address a class of graduates.
Harper says it's a powerful experience for patients to hear prominent people share their stories of struggles with addiction.
Gov. Walker agrees.
"I think it's powerful for the participants to see someone in her position who's had that experience in her own family and hear her mention some of the challenges she has had with her own parents and alcohol," he says. "She can relate to some of the same pressures they are going through."
Tonette Walker says there are many ways to overcome addiction. The power of faith is among them.
"Some of these young women need something to hold on to, and there are many places in the Bible to find examples of strength," she says. "Those in the program turn to God to give them strength and guidance."
She knows not everyone will support all the interests she endorses as first lady.
"I live my faith, which made my decision to support the organization a natural thing for me to do," she says. "But people have a choice. If they prefer not to get involved with me and Teen Challenge ... that is OK, too."