Golf as a Guide to StepUP

 

Jon Schwingler
Jon Schwingler

For many, golf is more than a game. It can be a metaphor for life, a way to connect, or an ongoing reminder of challenges faced and rewards hard won. Jon Schwingler remembers being on a golf course when he first became aware of the strength and reach of the StepUP program, which he has recently chosen to endow with an estate gift.

In 2010, Schwingler was invited to play in the StepUP fundraiser golf tournament with his friend, Toby LaBelle ’96, and Toby’s father, Tad Piper. Toby is a Board of Regents member and former StepUP advisory board chair, and his mother, Cindy Piper is the current vice chair, so it took far fewer than eighteen holes for Schwingler to grasp one essential fact. “This program is a huge game-changer for families who struggle with addiction,” he says.

A Saint John’s University graduate and wealth management consultant, Schwingler has faced similar issues. “Recovery has been a big part of my life, and that is part of what opened my eyes,” says Schwingler, who has celebrated more than seven years of sobriety. Within a year after that golf tournament, Schwingler learned of two friends whose children were floundering college drop-outs. He accompanied the families on a visit to Augsburg, where the young people eventually found a safe home, sober dorm, and college degree. So when Schwingler was invited to join the advisory board, the answer was a resounding yes.

“Just knowing that there is an option for students to leave other environments and come to Augsburg is so important. Some graduates I know personally might not have earned a college degree if they had not had the opportunity to be in a safe environment,” he says. “It is a place of hope for parents. It is life-changing.”

Though his StepUP connection, Schwingler also came to love the college itself. “I had a pre-conceived notion of what Augsburg is and was—a little Lutheran school next to the University of Minnesota, a place I’ve often driven past. But now that I’m involved and see more of it, I have a much greater awareness of its urban location and real urban feel, and of many peers I never knew were alumni. I’ve found that people always loved their time at Augsburg.”

Jon Schwingler (center) and family hunched in football formation
Jon (center) and wife Julz (left) with their three kids

Schwingler finds much to applaud: student diversity, progressive buildings such as the new Hagfors Center for Science, Business, and Religion, specialties such as engineering, and graduate programs such as education. As a father to three not-yet-teenagers who struggle with ADHD, he particularly appreciates Augsburg’s acceptance of and support for students with disabilities of all kinds.

He uses golf to explain. “Most colleges want students who shoot straight down the middle of the fairway. Others aren’t going to do well in those places. For those who have to play in the first or second cut of rough, it’s challenging,” he says. “Augsburg has embraced them and even built programs around them. The Gage Center for Student Success, for example, is amazing. I like to think of Augsburg as the little engine that could.”

In addition to planned giving, Schwingler remains active on the StepUP advisory board and invested in its future. He envisions a transition home for new graduates, for example, as well as more room for StepUP on campus. Another goal is creating more awareness among other universities as well as getting the word out to family members and communities. “We’ve built good relationships with different treatment centers, such as Hazelden Betty Ford, and sober high schools in town, but we need to reach people in other geographic areas who feel they’re in hopeless situations with their kids. How about Chicago? All those things come down to funding,” he says.

“One of the great things about this program is that any college in the country can look at our model and adopt it. We give it away,” he adds. Contributing to such a profound mission feels like making a hole-in-one—or maybe even better.

Stepping Up for the StepUP Fund

Cindy and Tad Piper
Cindy and Tad Piper

About 25 years ago, young Toby Piper LaBelle ’96 had already learned a few things. He’d taken a year off after graduating from Breck School and gone west to teach skiing, which convinced him that he aspired to more than a minimum-wage job.  And he’d spent time in treatment for addiction, which taught him that staying sober was the only way to ensure success in college.

“Toby wanted a local school and chose Augsburg. It was the right place for him. He felt comfortable there,” says his mother, Cindy Piper. But he wasn’t comfortable sharing a dorm with students who drank alcohol, so he moved into an apartment off campus. Eventually he approached Don Warren, then director of the Academic Skills Center at Augsburg, about the need for a safe, sober place where students in recovery could live and support each other. In 1997, under Warren’s direction, the StepUP program was born.

The Piper family have been staunch supporters ever since. Cindy and her husband, Tad Piper, retired CEO and chairman of Piper Jaffray, recently pledged $500,000 to establish the Piper Family Executive Director of Recovery Advancement as well as to inspire others to contribute to the StepUP Program Endowed Fund. “We wanted to give a significant gift to get this program off the ground,” Cindy says. They have currently raised $5.2 million toward their $10 million endowment goal.

Thanks in part to Toby’s advocacy, StepUP became one of the first residential recovery programs in the nation and continues to be viewed as the gold standard for residential collegiate communities. Six months of recovery is required before students are admitted, and infractions are not tolerated. Today about 90 students are enrolled, and they maintain high abstinence rates and an average GPA of 3.2.

A smiling Cindy Piper at the podium at the 2016 StepUP Gala.
Cindy Piper at the 2016 StepUP Gala.

“Addiction is an ugly, cunning, baffling disease. Young people have to make up their minds they don’t want to be in it,” says Cindy. “I just feel so strongly about recovery for all people, especially young people who want to go to college. Toby’s business degree from Augsburg has served him well.” Now senior vice president at Northland Securities and a father of three, Toby is former chair of the StepUP Advisory Board and a member of the Augsburg College Board of Regents.

Cindy, who spent nine years as a trustee on the Hazelden Foundation, is now vice-chair of the StepUP board, where she organizes galas that gross half a million dollars a year. “That’s an unusual amount of money in recovery organizations. We’ve been able to add to the endowment through our proceeds,” she says. “As my son reminds me, we must keep in mind that we are changing lives. That’s the magic of the recovery community.”

— Cathy Madison