Life Anew

Photography by Brandon Markin / shot on location at Little Rock Violin Shop


Markey Ford’s toolbox is a big, three-tiered red metal box from Sears, and one of her tools is a wooden-handled hammer inscribed with the words “This too shall pass.” It’s not a real toolbox — it’s more of a visual representation of the kit of spiritual tools she has used to stay sober for 28 years.

As executive director of the Wolfe Street Foundation, Ford spent the past decade devoted to a cause near and dear to her heart: providing hope and encouragement to recovering alcoholics and their families.

Wolfe Street Center in downtown Little Rock, at the corner of 10th and Louisiana streets, provides facilities to support groups faithful to the original 12 steps of recovery. The center also offers education and prevention programs. The doors are open every day of the year, and more than 100,000 people annually come to the center. Ford walked in the doors of the old Wolfe Street Center at 12th and Wolfe Streets many years ago.

“I grew up in an alcoholic home,” she said.  “If someone was happy, you drank; if something sad happened, you drank. Drinking was the tool offered to handle whatever was going on. I remember everything about my first drink at age 13. It was magical, and I quickly discovered the power of alcohol.”

As a young adult, Ford had an “uptown crowd” — the professional colleagues she had a drink or two with after work — and a “downtown crowd” — those she met at a bar later to get drunk. For a while, Ford seemed to have it all: a husband and two children, a career she loved, and she was active in church and civic organizations.

“I’m an overachiever. I had all the things that I thought should have made me OK,” she said. “I always felt if I could be or accomplish enough on the outside, my insides would follow. I didn’t understand it was the other way around. I was drinking alcohol to knock the edge off the constant miserable state I was in, but I didn’t know where the misery came from.”

Gradually, Ford needed more and more alcohol to take the edge off, though she was careful not to drink to excess around her family. Instead, she drank after everyone went to bed, crashing around 2 a.m. and waking at 6 a.m. with the alarm, and a hangover. She became a blackout drinker — unable to remember the next day what had happened the night before. She hit her bottom one night at an after-hours get-together with work colleagues.

“I said horrible, vulgar, unforgivable things to wonderful people who had done nothing to deserve it,” Ford said. “A friend told me the next day what had happened, and I didn’t remember any of it.”

Ford’s family and friends urged her to get professional help, but she refused to see a psychologist. Instead, she went to a 12-step meeting because it was free. As people talked during the meeting, she found herself nodding in agreement and even laughing at stories most people wouldn’t admit to. She had done similar things.

“I found out I was not alone,” she said. “I had never felt such relief. I was 35 years old. At the end of my first meeting, I went up to a lady and asked, ‘What do I do now?’”

“Can you not take a drink today?” the lady asked.

“I’ll try,” Ford replied.

“OK, don’t take a drink today, come back tomorrow, and I’ll tell you what to do,” the lady said.

Ford went back the next day and asked the lady about her next step, and the lady said: “Well, can you not drink just for today and come back tomorrow?”

The coming back part is important.

“There’s this gaping hole within us that alcohol filled for so long,” Ford explained. “When we come into recovery, that gaping hole is filled first with the fellowship, then working the 12 steps, and soon absolute miracles start happening that are unexplainable by anything other than God working in our lives.”

Wolfe Street Center is where Ford found people who offered her the hope and encouragement she needed to live one day at a time. She watched others walk the walk and followed them as she found her survival tools and put them to use. Ford got sober when her children were 2 and 6.

In 2005, Ford was hired as executive director of Wolfe Street Foundation where she not only oversaw fundraising efforts and planned educational programs and special events but she also was often the one to greet new arrivals at the center. When Ford first took the job, she thought she’d stay five years. Those five years came and went. The center, in 2011, moved to its current location at 1015 Louisiana St., which Ford fondly calls the “Louisiana Purchase.” Most recently they completed the Serenity Garden, and Ford stepped away from the job after this year’s Oscar Gala, the foundation’s largest fundraiser and the state’s only Academy Award-sanctioned event. That evening the new executive director Caroline Ford was introduced with open arms.

“I feel I’d done all that I could,” Markey Ford said. “It was time to pass the torch to someone with compassion and a vision for the future.”

Her current philanthropic efforts are with NLP, a film company producing the recovery education documentary film project, “One Day At A Time, The History, Hope and Healing of 12 Step Recovery,” which is set to air on PBS and BBC.  She’s also developing a summer concert in Central Arkansas to help fund the project.

In addition, Ford plans to continue going to meetings at Wolfe Street Center. “In case someone drops a tool, I’ll be there to pick it up and put it in my toolbox.”