By the time Bobbi Jo Reed dropped out of high school at 16, she’d already been an alcoholic for four years, broken her back in a driving accident involving alcohol, and gotten an abortion following a rape.
Her parents, a police officer and homemaker in Kansas City, Kansas, had lost control of their daughter, and she decided to strike out on her own. It wasn’t until she was 34 and had gone through much worse that she understood she had to change her life.
A new documentary, “Bobbi Jo: Under the Influence,” premieres on certain streaming services on Feb. 16. It tells the story of how she got sober, and began helping others do the same. By Reed’s count, she’s helped 8,000 people reclaim their lives.
Filmmaker Brent Jones had just moved back to Kansas City from Los Angeles and was looking for a project. He happened to hear Reed speak at Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Leawood.
“When I heard her story, and when she tells it live like that… I came home, and I told my wife, ‘There’s this amazing woman I just heard speak,’” Jones says.
He and his wife, Donna Jones, have teamed up on productions, mostly TV commercials. They decided Reed’s story was the one they’d been looking to tell. They were so convinced of its urgency they didn’t wait to line up financing; they used savings to produce their film.
The documentary weaves Reeds’ account of her own life with stories of those she’s helped through her Healing House recovery non-profit in northeast Kansas City.
She tells her story often and says simply: “People relate to me because I’ve been there.”
After she dropped out of school, Reed moved in with a drug dealer. She said he’d lock her in the house, take her car from her, and sometimes put a gun in her mouth.
For a while, she says, she returned to her parents’ house when life became unbearable, clean up briefly, then go right back to drugs and alcohol and abusive relationships.
But after a man forced her into prostitution by threatening her life and the lives of her family members, she felt too dirty and ashamed to return to the safety of home. She entered a stretch during which she was beaten, raped, and kidnapped. Before long, she was homeless.
“This is how sick I was with my addiction. I just thought, ‘If God could just give me a drink, I’d be okay,’” she says in the film. “I needed to stay numb; that’s the only way I could survive.”
After her father died in 1995, Reed committed herself to sobriety. She checked into a downtown detox center, but it was so filthy it did little to restore her sense of human dignity.
As she began to heal, she sold baked goods at a flea market and used her earnings to buy basic hygiene products for others in detox. “I’d sit on the bunks with people and give them homemade cookies,” Reed says, “and I’d tell them how I was getting better.”
Her assistance expanded to include all sorts of packaged food and care products. “I was 34 years old, and I thought, for the first time in my life, maybe I do have something I could do, maybe I can be good at something,” she explains.
Reed’s mother died and left her a house, which she refurbished. Rather than settle in the suburbs, she says God told her to sell the house and move to “the hood.” She purchased a broken-down nursing home off of St. John Avenue.
Twenty years later, when the documentary was completed, Healing House possessed 14 houses and two apartment complexes.Reed currently provides shelter and services to 200 adults, and 34 of their children. Her services help fill an acknowledged gap in the region for people with drug and alcohol addictions.
“Most people come in with a Price Chopper sack with everything they own in it, or a trash bag,” Reed says, in a telephone interview. “They don’t have family, or family has finally closed the door on them, and they have nothing, so we start from the ground up.”
She says it’s taken years of trial and error to figure out what works best. The houses are homes, not treatment facilities, and Reed fosters an atmosphere of love and structure with a faith-based approach.
Of her 41 employees, 39 are alumni of her program, and all have earned the appropriate certifications for peer counseling.
Brent Jones says he tried to get that “wow” factor into the documentary. He wants people to understand how far Reed had fallen and how far she’s risen.
“I hope that people, when they get to the end of it, think, ‘I can do more. If Bobbi Jo can do this, I need to do something. I need to reach out,’” Jones says.
Healing House continues to grow. Since filming ended in June of 2020, Reed has purchased a strip mall with four upstairs apartments. She expects to take possession of another house within a month.
Her work has not only changed the lives of the people who’ve come to her, but the face of the neighborhood as well.
“The difference in the community is just astonishing. This is a much safer place to be. No drug dealers or pimps or gang members on the corner hanging out,” Reed says. “I believe God let me live through all that nonsense so I could help people in a more meaningful, powerful way.”