Stephanie Bowman was a desperate mother of two young girls, homeless and an addict when she did the unthinkable: She placed her 5-year-old daughter, Amber, into a dumpster to forage for food.
“There was a woman close by who saw me and started yelling at me: ‘Get her out of that dumpster!’ ” recalls Bowman. “I thought I was in trouble and she said, ‘You’ll never put your kid in a dumpster again. I’ll make sure we have something here every day.’ And she did. She had food for us behind her restaurant whenever we needed it. I knew that was the purest sign that somebody loved us. Someone who didn’t even know us.”
It was an act of kindness that Bowman, 53, would repay thousands of times over. Sober since 1999 — the same year she hit rock bottom when her daughters were placed in foster care — she is the founder and president of One Heart for Women and Children, a nonprofit in Orlando, Florida, dedicated to serving struggling families in the community.
Bowman is featured in PEOPLE’s first-ever Kindness Issue, dedicated to highlighting the ways, big and small, that kindness can make a difference and change lives. Click here and pick up the issue, on stands Friday, Nov. 8, for more stories on the impact of kindness from Julia Roberts, Tiffany Haddish and other stars, as well as everyday people practicing kindness in their communities. To share the story of someone who’s done something exceptionally kind, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
“I knew when I started One Heart that I wanted there to be no strings attached,” Bowman says.
“When people walk in, we want them to feel just like anyone else: whether they had a shower that day or haven’t had a shower in a month; whether they walked there or drove a fancy car,” she continued. “We want every single person who walks through the doors to feel the same, which is to feel hope and to feel loved.”
Today, One Heart for Women and Children serves more than 3,000 people each month, providing everything from food to clothing to hygiene items and educational classes. The organization is entirely staffed entirely by volunteers — “we could not do it without them,” says Bowman — and opens its doors to a thrift store every Saturday. (To donate or volunteer, click here.)
“We’re here to help anyone who needs the help,” says Bowman. “There is no shame, no judgment. We celebrate when people get to One Heart. And then it’s, ‘How can we help you get to that next place?’ Everybody’s time of transition looks different.”
‘Something Just Shifted’: Her Spiral Into Addiction
The daughter of a U.S. Army Band Master dad and a mom who worked as a counselor for those with disabilities, Bowman moved from Indiana to Florida when she was 8. She had an “amazing, loving” childhood, but everything changed when she was 15: The victim of rape, she subsequently had an abortion. Around the same time, a close friend died by suicide.
“Something just shifted,” she says, leading her to begin experimenting with drugs and alcohol. “And so, from 15 to 32 years old, I was in and out of addiction. I didn’t know that back then. I was lying to myself through all of that. All of my relationships were unhealthy.”
By 1993, Bowman was “heavily addicted to powder cocaine,” trapped in an abusive marriage and pregnant with Amber. She entered treatment “and thought that a baby was going to help keep me clean and sober. What I found out real quickly is that wasn’t the truth.”
During those years, Amber bounced between friends and family members as Bowman’s addiction worsened. “I loved my daughter, but I loved the drugs even more,” she says. “And in the beginning of recovery, I think that was the hardest thing for me to admit, because I knew healthy moms didn’t leave their kids in different places. She was in crack houses with me. And by that time I was pregnant with [younger daughter Katie] in crack houses.”
When Katie arrived eight weeks early in July of 1998, “my urge to use drugs was still there and I was fighting it every single day.” She relapsed three months after Katie’s birth and soon after that, fled her abusive marriage.
‘There Was No Bigger Sign’: Her Sobriety Turning Point
Suddenly homeless, Bowman saw her daughters removed from her custody and placed into foster care on Jan. 7, 1999 — the final turning point in her sobriety journey.
“It was the first time I really wanted to live clean and sober,” she says. “I didn’t want to hide anymore. I didn’t want to lie anymore. I didn’t want to cheat anymore. I didn’t want to steal anymore. I didn’t want to prostitute anymore. That was the last release of my addiction.”
Bowman adds: “My prayer for 10 days prior to that was, ‘Let something bad enough happen for me to get the oomph to do something different. Show me the sign.’ My kids being removed: There was no bigger sign.”
But just 18 months after getting sober — and regaining custody of her daughters — she was hit with a devastating setback: choriocarcinoma, a fast-growing cancer that occurs in the uterus and followed a tubular pregnancy. Still, she took the news with an exceptionally positive outlook that would help guide her current work.
“There was a reason why I was 18 months clean and sober when I was diagnosed,” she says. “I had a strong foundation in my recovery circle.”
Turning Pain Into Power
In 2009, inspired by one of the counselors she had at the state-funded treatment center that helped her get clean, Bowman founded One Heart. One year earlier, Bowman — who suffered two subsequent cancer battles — married her husband George, whom she met in AA. “I’m married to an awesome, amazing man who is loving, kind, gentle and understanding — and loves my daughters and myself,” she says.
Looking ahead, Bowman hopes to open a women and children’s shelter called “One Heart — A Safe Place to Land” for those who are enduring similar struggles to those she overcame.
“One of the things we encourage people at One Heart for Women and Children to do is to share their stories,” she says. ” ‘Tell me. How did you end up where you are right now? What is that thing in your life where it shifted from loving and light to darkness?’ It becomes, Who can I help today? That is the mantra.”