Healing Waters

Jason Kusiak standing in front of the ocean holding a very large fishJason Kusiak spends late winter and early spring long-lining for cod and haddock, and most of the year catching lobster. Fishing in some of America’s oldest seaports near Gloucester, Mass., gives Kusiak an appreciation for the area’s rich history, and a healthy respect for those who made a living fishing the Atlantic in earlier times. He relishes the hard work, excitement, and competition of constantly driving at something, and “with fishing, you can see the direct result of your work ethic,” he says.

Also, the waters seem to provide the environment for a thoughtful transition. Kusiak is the first to admit that his career plans are still evolving, and that, at 33, he’s not sure what lies ahead. He states with conviction that he always wants to be growing, and “to be present” in his own life in order to experience much and maintain great relationships. Oddly enough, a few years ago, he wondered if he would live to be 27.

Very active as a youngster, Kusiak had earned a black belt by age 9 and had placed first at nationals. In high school he played football, basketball, and lacrosse. He pushed himself to excel. But at the end of his senior year and on the eve of a big recruiting summer for lacrosse, a high school party became the proverbial “fly in the ointment.” Racing through the woods in the dark with a friend, Kusiak ran into a fire-road steel gate, resulting in a double-compound fracture of his leg and the shattering of his elbow.

Jason Kusiak smiles for a selfie in front of a sunset over the ocean. Two birds soar overhead.Kusiak became addicted to painkillers, and it was a struggle not only to discontinue use of opioids but to obtain help from insurance companies to do so.

He eventually sought help and treatment at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation. Shortly thereafter, he learned about the StepUP® Program, Augsburg’s residential collegiate recovery community, and he began his studies in 2006. “That fellowship of walking through this together” (in the same residence hall as other students dealing with substance abuse) made academic success much more likely, and Kusiak felt as if the “whole school bought into it and that’s why Augsburg is unique.” He is especially grateful to StepUP’s director Patrice Salmeri and former director Dave Hadden and to professors John and Peggy Cerrito for the “great impact” of their entrepreneurial class, particularly the focus on learning through experience and connections. Continue reading “Healing Waters”

Because You Believed in Me

Anne Thompson Heller with her family at Augsburg College graduation
Anne Thompson Heller with her family at Augsburg College graduation

Before Anne Thompson Heller ’08 began her studies at Augsburg, she hadn’t even visited the College. But she knew Augsburg was where she needed to be, because of the StepUP® Program on campus. Honestly, she says, she’s not sure she would have been able to go to college when she did without the support of StepUP, Augsburg’s residential recovery program.

Now, while completing a doctoral program at the University of Connecticut, Thompson Heller helps other young people in recovery to achieve academically and thrive. With two master’s degrees (one in educational leadership, higher education, and student affairs; the other in marriage and family therapy), she works tirelessly to support youth recovery. Though she hadn’t intended to pursue multiple advanced degrees, she did so when she discovered an undeniable passion for helping others facing addiction issues, just as she had been helped in her StepUP experience.

When she moved back to Connecticut, she served CTYF (Connecticut Turning to Youth and Families) as a board member, and eventually as its vice president, advocating for youth services with several state and other influential agencies, and attempting to raise awareness of the problem. Her involvement with CTYF led to her current work on the board of directors for Connecticut Community of Addiction Recovery (CCAR).

In 2010, after speaking at the National Education Recovery Summit, Thompson Heller was invited to join the board of the Association of Recovery Schools (a “phenomenal” organization, she says), where she led the advocacy committee and worked to enhance youth leadership in recovery schools. In that role, she was able to support the development of YPR (Young People in Recovery), a national advocacy organization, as one of the organization’s founding members. YPR now has chapters across the country, which emanated from several national conferences that sought to address addiction recovery and related issues such as leadership training and organizational development. Continue reading “Because You Believed in Me”

StepUP Gala is a Success

StepUP galaThe annual StepUP®  Gala was held Oct. 24 at the Hyatt Regency Minneapolis. More than 350 attendees, including 100 StepUP alumni and current students, participated in the evening that included keynote speaker, author, and StepUP parent Sarah Nielsen; emcee, comedian Bill Arnold; and alumni speaker, Samuel O. Spafford ’09. A live auction featured a private party with dinner prepared by celebrity chef Andrew Zimmern, tropical getaways, a golf package and more.

Generous attendees brought in $290,000 in donations for the occasion, which is the primary fundraiser for  all StepUP activities. This year, StepUP serves more students than ever before as it helps students navigate their way toward a bachelor’s degree while maintaining a 93% sobriety rate. Continue reading “StepUP Gala is a Success”