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90-year old woman shares secret of sobriety with 19,000 people

Jeanne McAlister runs her non-profit organization with an open heart and three inch heels.

EL CAJON, Calif. —
A San Diego woman who found sobriety 65 years ago is paying it forward with low-cost programs that have helped 19,000 people. In this Zevely Zone, I went to El Cajon to meet the non-profit organization's 90-year-old C.E.O. When it comes to fighting substance abuse in San Diego, it's hard to find a greater champion that Jeanne McAlister.

Credit: CBS 8

"I was not a good child," said Jeanne. It was back during WWII, when Jeanne began the biggest battle of her life. She will never forget the day she took her first drink of alcohol. "I was ten years old," said Jeanne.  

From that moment on, the party never stopped and neither did the drinking. "I ran away from home, lived in Long Beach for a year and half got picked up and thrown in girls correctional school," said Jeanne.  

Credit: McAlister Institute

Jeanne's addiction led her down a road she is so ashamed of, she asked us not to share the details publicly. "It was dark, it was dark," said Jeanne. At age 24, Jeanne's turning point was more about romance than rock bottom. "I wanted to date a man and he took me to an A.A. meeting. That is how I got into sobriety," said Jeanne.  

In 1977, Jeanne opened her non-profit organization called the McAlister Institute to help others. The McAlister Institute has offered high-quality, low-cost substance abuse treatment, drug intervention, and recovery support services to more than 19,000 men, women, teens, and children throughout San Diego County. The McAlister Institute has expanded from an $8 million dollar operation to a $30 million dollar operation in the last 4 years. 

The organization has also grown from one hundred employees to nearly four hundred. One of Jeanne's many employees is Clessa Young. "I came to a stop when my kids were taken away," said Clessa who was addicted to cocaine. Clessa says Jeanne inspired her to live a better life. "I never saw her once want to throw in the towel," said Clessa. Twenty-four years ago, after showing her a new way of life, Jeanne gave Clessa a job for life. "I love this woman," said Clessa.    

Credit: McAlister Institute

"I have a sign in my office that says I am 51 percent sweetheart and 49 percent bitch, so don't push it, ha, ha," laughed Jeanne. Her sweetheart side was on full display during our visit. That's when Denise Ebanks, walked in, sat down, and surrendered. "I really believe that something special is going to happen for you," said Jeanne to Denise who has struggled with substance abuse. "It means everything to me that I could be on my own and really live my life and continue on that path and finish what I started," said Denise.  

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Jeanne put our interview on pause to open her door and her arms to help Denise. "Because you never know when the miracle is going to happen do you? This might be your miracle," said Jeanne to Denise.

At 90-years old, Jeanne still works everyday wearing three-inch heels. "Most days yes, because I'm stubborn and I'm not going to give in to being old," said Jeanne. Stubborn enough to celebrate 65-years of sobriety.

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"Oh my god, it's amazing it's wonderful," said Jeanne about living a clean life. The San Diego native's takes her calling in life so personally, she openly gives out her personal phone number to anyone in need. "If there is anyone out there that needs help give me call. My number is 619-987-6393," said Jeanne.  

Jeanne's inspiration is actress, Betty White. "She recently passed away and I want you to know I eat a hot dog in her honor," said Jeanne.  A hot dog a day. One day at time. "If I can do it, you can do it," said Jeanne.  

Jeanne offer 27 programs throughout San Diego County.  She has helped people from age 12 to 90 years old. For more information about the McAlister Institute click here.

WATCH RELATED: McAlister Institute putting on 9th Annual Walk for Sobriety (Sept 2021)

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