Addicts get second chance at life from cafe owner

(CBS News) FORT MYERS, Fla. - In this economy, everyone is lucky to have work, but few are luckier than the waitress at Gwendolyn's Cafe in Fort Myers, Florida.

Before coming here, Michelle Werline had a hard time securing a job, mainly because when it came to mistakes, there was almost nothing on the menu she hadn't tried.

As a result of her addictions, the state took away all three of her kids. She's been sober five years now, but says most employers don't want the baggage anyhow. Michelle said she didn't expect a second chance.

It's not just Michelle who got a second chance.

The owner gave Wendie, the cook, a chance too -- and John, the deliveryman.

In fact, just about everyone who works at Gwendolyn's is a recovering addict or alcoholic. Which begs the question: What is Gwendolyn thinking?

"This whole staff for the most part has admitted to stealing" and being out of control, said Gwendolyn Howard, adding that she ignores all that "because I like to see them get better."

That's part of the answer.

"I've been very lucky and I want people to have what I have," Gwen said.

Gwendolyn Howard is a recovering alcoholic herself. Since opening her restaurant a couple years ago, she has hired about 20 people with similar, checkered pasts. She says it works out about half the time.

"Half of my hires are incredible hires," Gwendolyn said.

Gwen added that by the time they walk in here, those who do work out are so grateful for the opportunity, they more than make up for the disappointments.

Then there also are the fringe benefits, like watching someone get their life back, or better yet, watching them raise their family.

Thanks to a solid job and sobriety, Michelle now has all 3 kids are back home.

"It's crazy, because I didn't know that it would ever happen," Michelle said.

As a business model, what Gwen is doing here in Fort Myers may or may not be prudent, but as a life model, she has accomplished something we could all learn from.

"Someone has to give them a chance. What if we all gave one person a chance?" Gwen asked.

Like Gwen, I bet we'd find it addicting.

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  • Steve Hartman

    Steve Hartman has been a CBS News correspondent since 1998, having served as a part-time correspondent for the previous two years.

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