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Jill and Robert Thomas Make $1 Million Challenge Grant for StepUP

Thomas familyJill and Robert Thomas of Tulsa, Oklahoma, are on a mission to erase the stigma associated with addiction and recovery—and it starts at Augsburg. They’ve made a $1 million challenge grant for Augsburg’s nationally recognized StepUP® Program, which helps students champion lives of recovery, achieve academic success, and thrive in a community of accountability and support. “The StepUP program is the Gold Star standard for collegiate recovery,” says Jill.

The couple is leading the drive to raise $10 million in endowment for the program and challenging others to “step up” to the plate to meet the urgent need for effective collegiate recovery programs.

Philanthropy + Advocacy = Change

Jill and Robert envision StepUP emerging as the program of choice for students in recovery and the employer of choice for top professionals in the field. They want to lift up StepUP as a model of excellence and see it replicated on campuses across the nation. They hope to see misconceptions about addiction and recovery shattered by the success of adults with addiction in their past. It all adds up to profound change. “First we have to start talking more openly about addiction and recovery, and then we have to start supporting it financially,” says Robert.

“We believe that our efforts can help organizations make a difference and move the needle in some very important things for people,” explains Robert, who served on the Alzheimer’s Association National Board and received the Maureen Reagan Award for outstanding Alzheimer’s Advocacy in 2010. Both he and Jill are leaders in Alzheimer’s advocacy and involved in several community organizations, including the Mental Health Association of Oklahoma and the Tulsa Area United Way.

They are parents of daughters Allie Thomas ’14 and Olivia Jordan, who currently serves as Miss USA.

Desperation, Love, and Hope

Jill and Robert learned about StepUP the hard way, through daughter Allie’s struggle with chemical dependency and her eventual recovery. “The despair and the fear of all it was all encompassing,” says Robert of that time in their lives.

Allie was living out of state when she hit the proverbial rock bottom.

“My dad swooped in and we came home to Tulsa,” says Allie. I had a series of stints in treatment centers, then stints of relapse. I was really unwell. It’s is so sad to think back on the person that I was.”

A Collegiate Recovery Program that Works

In February 2010, an interventionist brought Allie to Hazelden Treatment Center in Center City, Minnesota. After she completed in-patient treatment, she went on a tour of Augsburg and StepUP that was arranged by her halfway house.  “I had never heard of anything like StepUP. I was amazed that there were so many other college students going through exactly what I had gone through, and that they were getting their degrees. I thought, ‘I can do that.’”

Allie relapsed one more time, but when she returned to Tulsa she finally committed to attending the recovery support groups that she knew would make a difference for her. StepUP requires six months of sobriety before admission, but Allie racked up 14 months before making the move. “All of a sudden, I was back in Minnesota, and it was exactly where I was meant to be,” she remembers.

“The peer accountability and support among the kids Allie was with at Augsburg literally bridged her into sobriety,” explains Robert. Today, Allie says she can’t imagine returning to life pre-recovery.

Investing in Excellence – Now

The largest residential collegiate recovery program in the country, StepUP serves more than 100 students like Allie annually.  It’s helped more than 700 young people since its inception 18 years ago. The average rate of successful abstinence is well above 90 percent from year to year, and students’ mean GPA is over 3.2 on a 4.0 scale. As part of their recovery journey, students frequently share their personal experiences in classrooms, treatment centers, and training centers. Their transformative stories inspire others and slowly lift the stigma connected with addiction and recovery and bring understanding, acceptance, and compassion.

“What a blessing it is to accept the challenge in your life and endure it, and come out with an opportunity to not only be grateful for where you are, but to help others,” says Jill. “That’s what led us to make this contribution to Augsburg and the StepUP program. Hopefully others will recognize that there is hope and opportunity and will join us. There are students who need this, and they need it now.”

Join the Movement

At the October 24 StepUP fundraising gala, Jill and Robert will receive the Toby Piper LaBelle Award for their financial commitment to StepUP, their advocacy for recovery issues, and their leadership of the drive to raise $10 million to permanently endow the program.

“Our gift is in thanks to Augsburg, but it’s a heck of a lot more than that,” explains Robert. “It’s about taking the best program in the country and saying that it can be even better and that it needs to grow.”

To learn more about StepUP and join the movement to erase the stigma of addiction and recovery, visit augsburg.edu/stepup or contact Keith Stout, Assistant Vice President, Advancement, at 612-330-1616 or stoutk@augsburg.edu.