Chief Executive Officer | Renewal House
Growing up in the small West Tennessee town of Covington, Pamela Sessions probably never imagined she would one day lead a unique organization dedicated to women and their children affected by substance use disorders. Back then, she just knew she wanted to find a way to help others.
"I have always had a passion for helping people and am fueled by working with people who face significant challenges in their lives," said Sessions.
That passion and drive are put to use daily at Renewal House, a nonprofit dedicated to keeping families intact while treating women with substance use disorders. "We're the only long-term provider of addiction treatment in Middle Tennessee where women and children are cared for simultaneously," Sessions noted.
She was first introduced to the field of social work as a teen and soon realized she'd found her calling. "Both my mom and aunt significantly impacted my career path and development. They did not make a choice for me, but they taught me I could be anything I wanted to be and not to allow anyone to tell me otherwise ... they were very adamant about that," she recalled with a laugh.
Both her mother and aunt graduated from college in the 1950s. "They were successful and didn't have the resources I have today. So if they could do it, they thought I could do it," Sessions said. "They encouraged me to see hardships and challenges as opportunities and not barriers."
Completing both her undergraduate degree and her Master of Science in Social Work at the University of Tennessee Knoxville, Sessions spent 18 years working in her field in Memphis before relocating to Nashville. After nearly eight years in a leadership role for the YWCA, she accepted the chief executive position with Renewal House in 2016 where she has put both her training and the lessons learned at home to work.
Renewal House is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. The campus provides residential treatment, recovery housing, intensive outpatient services, telehealth, parenting skills and vocational counseling. "The goal is to break the cycle in terms of addiction, poverty and trauma," she said of working with women determined to rewrite the script for themselves and their families.
"Opioids are the primary substance of use for the women we've been seeing for the last couple of years," Sessions noted of what has become a national epidemic. A substance use disorder has to be the primary diagnosis for the women Renewal House serves; however, many women in the program have a co-occurring mental health disorder, most often anxiety and depression, she said.
While the organization has served more than 6,000 women and children, Sessions said many more need assistance. "The most challenging aspect of my field is when there are not enough resources available to meet every need or when resources are available and you can't access them," she said. "Support from the community makes Renewal House's life-changing work possible."
With an average of 60 women on the Renewal House waiting list on any given day, a major capital campaign to increase capacity is underway. "We've started the building project," Sessions said with evident excitement about construction on a three-story facility to be completed by year's end. The new building includes 34 apartments, staff office space, rooms for treatment sessions and a small minor care medical clinic. "We would love to renovate the current building and turn it into long-term, affordable housing," she said of the next goal.
Ultimately, Sessions hopes to see the entire 14-acre campus developed to include an early learning center, vocational training center and more housing. "I would love to have a celebrity help us raise awareness about Renewal House and the work we're doing," she said of efforts to speed the timeline on long-term plans.
An avid crafter, she has the ability to see raw materials and envision what they could become - whether that's land to be developed, a blank canvas to paint or a mom trying to overcome addiction and become a better parent. Sessions, an 11-year cancer survivor, knows what it's like to face challenging situations. She also knows it's possible to come out on the other side with effective treatment options and a strong support system in place - the very tools Renewal House offers the women they serve.
"I love seeing people beat the odds, whether it's recovering from a substance use disorder, surviving cancer or losing 100 pounds," she said. "There is an overwhelming sense of accomplishment and pride when you take on a significant challenge and succeed."