Rhode Island’s First Lady, Stephanie Chafee, puts Ritz crackers in her meatloaf, and takes sugar and cream in her coffee. She usually has dirt under her nails from cleaning out her stables, and prefers riding horses to being in the spotlight. She also likes pop music.
“I could listen to [Katy Perry’s] ‘Firework’ seven to eight times a day,” she said. Chafee is not a stereotypical first lady, though she does use her status to reach out to the community and get things done.
On Tuesday she paid a visit to the Harbor House in Providence, a clubhouse open to all Rhode Islanders with mental illnesses. Chafee, who believes that some people are still “afraid” of mental illness, thinks that more attention should be paid to places like the Harbor House, and the things they accomplish.
She took a tour of the new space, speaking with the tour guide frankly and candidly. He expressed his desire to work in the clubhouse’s office, and manage their budget.
“That’s really hard to do,” she laughed knowingly.
Chafee is self-aware. She’s heard the critiques of her husband, and faces them regularly.
“It’s OK to criticize us for the right things,” she admitted. “But when they say things that are untrue, it’s very painful.”
Chafee was giving back to the community long before she took her current last name. She earned her B.S. in nursing from Boston University, and an M.F.A. from the University of Connecticut. In the 1980s, she worked with HIV and AIDS patients, administering experimental injections and giving them blood tests. She also co-founded the RI Free Clinic in South Providence, after recognizing that the state had no outlet with which to provide free health care to those who needed it most.
On Tuesday she sat with the Harbor House members at a large table, drinking coffee and hearing their stories. The seven clubhouse members in attendance all shared their various trials and tribulations: from their darkest moments, to their everyday challenges like remembering their medications.
Chafee listened intently, offering advice, commentary and compassion.
“You all just blew me away with your openness, and honesty,” she said after the members had shared their stories. “It really humbled me.”
Although the conversation was mostly cordial, there was a moment where one of the members brought up the issue of state funding, and cuts made in the budget. Chafee rose to her husband’s defense.
“My husband puts forth a budget, but who controls the budget?” she asked. “Not the governor; the legislature. People aren’t clued into who rules them. Most people don’t even know who their legislators are.”
She said her husband gets “all of the blame and none of the glory.”
She then took a moment to level with the people at the table.
“I love this state to death, but let’s be honest. We have a lot of great assets,” she said, referring to the ocean and shorelines, “but those are not providing an economy that makes us a wealthy state.”
The members of the clubhouse appreciated her candor and honesty.
“You’re really down to earth,” said clubhouse member Melissa Fundakowski. “I can tell because you don’t paint your nails.”
Chafee said that her priority is her family.
“Family always comes first,” she said. “When I’ve got the kids taken care of, then I ride my horse. Then if there’s any time left in the day, I do my first lady stuff.”
She said if she doesn’t keep her priorities in order, she’s “no good otherwise.”
Chafee, whose maiden name is Danforth, comes from a wealthy background, and has an estimated $50 million in blind trusts. Her family founded the Rhode Island School of Design in the late 1800s. Despite her large bank account, Chafee said she has always been an advocate for those without health insurance since “before she was an adult.”
During her high school years, her school was shut down from Thanksgiving until Christmas due to the oil crisis the country was facing. The students were required to do 40 hours of community service a week in place of their schooling. Chafee spent her hours at Rhode Island Hospital.
She said her passion for helping others stems from somewhere within.
“It’s just the way I’m made, an innate something,” she said. “It’s a part of who you are. I was brought up under the values system to leave it better than you found it. I want to make sure I’ve made this state better.”
Chafee said that anyone can make a difference in their own way. She hopes that her impact has been positive, but realizes that there are plenty of critics out there.
“The reality is, I can’t please everyone. If you’re doing your job well, then somebody won’t be happy,” she said.
Chafee openly admits that she was leery of her husband running for governor.
“It exposes who we are,” said Chafee of being in such a prominent public position. “People learn who you are, and you have no private life. Sometimes it’s hard.”
Chafee knows that even though her husband is governor, it’s not necessarily a good thing for her outreach and community work.
“It depends who you talk to,” she laughed. “It’s a good thing for me having already had my own career, it makes it easier for me to stay true to my values.”
“She touches people’s lives,” said Fundakowski, who upon meeting Chafee for the first time Tuesday felt a strong connection.
In the future, Chafee hopes to continue what she’s doing now, “Continuing to be an advocate for underdogs.”