January 2019


Author: Barry Kaufman | Photographer: M.Kat Photography

If you, the readers of CH2 simply chose our Bachelorette of the Year on beauty, Vanessa Stewart would still be a clear winner. If you voted primarily on whether you know someone, she’d probably still win. But there’s more to the winning Bachelorette than a pretty face and a wide social circle. There’s the unmistakable energy she brings to a room, the way the atmosphere is lightened when she enters, shadows banished by the sheer brightness of her personality.

It’s more than just beauty. It’s spirit. And hands down, no contest, Vanessa Stewart embodies that spirit. Her laugh and her vitality instantly change the character of any place, but beyond that lies the deep wellspring of her humanity. She didn’t enter our Bachelorette contest to meet guys; she didn’t do it for the ego boost. She did it because of the good she knew she could do.

“I was really kind of nervous putting myself out there, but the key thing is you win money for your charity,” she said. Stewart chose Any Length Recovery, a long-term addiction recovery center in Sumter that places special emphasis on helping addicts rebuild their lives long after the treatment is over. “I lost my brother two and a half years ago, so I just said, ‘I’m doing this.’”

Winning the contest dovetails nicely with her January Stop Heroin Walk, held on the island to raise funds for Any Length. “It all kind of fell into place. I just thought, how great would it be to give them even more money, since all the proceeds from the walk go to Any Length Recovery. That was my biggest motivation.”

Stewart found Any Length through two of her friends who had their lives turned around by the clinic, both of whom are clean to this day. Fresh from the pain of losing her brother, she found some form of catharsis in keeping others from losing family through the same tragic circumstances. “It’s crazy how something so painful can bring so much positivity,” said Any Length co-director Lisa Woodie. “And Vanessa is amazing. Coming out of that pain of loss, it’s so easy to just go dark. She’s not that type of person. She’s very giving.”

And she’s using that giving spirit to honor her brother Ricky’s memory.

“When my brother passed, it was life changing. We were only 18 months apart,” she said. “My brother’s walk has been so therapeutic for me it’s unbelievable. To be able to talk about it, it makes my heart beam.”

Smile for the camera
“I love taking care of people, and I love helping people,” Stewart said. Her job as a dental hygienist not only gives her the chance to help people, one healthy smile at a time, it also gives her a chance to meet people—which, for a self-declared people person, is a dream come true. And while she is passionate about her job, she’s also very candid about how her career path started.

“I hated my dentist growing up,” she said with a laugh. Of course, that could have something to do with the circumstances behind those visits. “I literally had my brother push me off a hideaway bed and jam my baby tooth up into my gums. I had to have it removed; I was already upset, and my dentist was just mean to me. He really traumatized me.”

It’s said with a laugh, but that early brush with her dentist’s less-than-stellar bedside manner convinced her she could do better. And when she learned that the vocational school at her high school offered a dental assisting program that could get her out of school for four hours, she jumped at the chance. “I fell in love with it, and I just had that in the back of my head that this is what I want to do.”

With her family torn apart by addiction, both her brother’s and her mother’s, Stewart put herself through school in her native Michigan. Even before she graduated, she had her next steps figured out.

“My aunt lives in Charlotte and she was like, ‘I know you want to move south, but have you ever checked out Hilton Head before?’ I started Googling it and said, ‘Okay, there’s an ocean and it’s going to be warm.’” That, and the fact that there was a two-day-a-week opening at Dr. Jeffrey Wachtel’s office, was all she needed to know.

“I sent him a résumé, and he literally called me the next day,” she said. She came down for a visit and was told she had the job as soon as she graduated. It probably helped that she already demonstrated the kind of spunk and determination that have defined her, by showing up for what was going to be a visit with her scrubs ready to go. “I still have those scrubs, and I will not get rid of them.”

Island living
In Wachtel’s practice, Stewart not only found employment and a way to escape the frosty climate of Michigan, she found a family. “He’s seriously like my second dad. I love his wife and they’re a huge part of my life,” Stewart said. “You should have seen him when the issue came out. He was like, ‘This is great, I want your poster up on every wall. I want everyone to vote.’ He’s been wonderful. Honestly, he was my first phone call—even when I wasn’t supposed to tell anyone.”

She acclimatized well to her new surroundings, finding endless happiness poolside or at the beach. “The Tiki Hut is one of my favorite places,” she said. Joining her every step of the way is her loyal pooch Tucker Marie, her graduation gift to herself. “His middle name is Marie, and yes he wears ruffles. I don’t care; he’s very comfortable in his skin.

And now, Stewart is our Bachelorette of the Year. Through your votes, you’ve helped her change countless lives, and you can continue to help during her Stop Heroin Walk, Jan. 26 at The Tiki Hut.

  1. I cried reading this! I have known Vanessa since I was 16 and you guys captured here perfectly and beautifully… This was an article that made my heart so happy!!!! Great job

    — Emmery Butler    Jan 4, 11:25 am   

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