Lou Anne and Tim Sexton believe philanthropy is based on a personal experience with an organization. They experienced this connection with Augsburg after their son, Shea ‘19, joined the StepUP Program.
“Shea’s experience with StepUP and Augsburg was transformational,” says Lou Anne.
Shea learned about StepUP while at a Hazelden Fellowship in St. Paul. A group of clients from fellowship were going to tour the StepUP dorms and Shea went along.
“He had kind of given up on the notion of pursuing a four-year degree while staying on a college campus.”
Shea attended Luther College and Inver Hills Community College where he struggled to stay sober. But after learning about StepUP, he realized there was a way he could get a degree and stay sober.
“He was mainly concerned about finding a place to live that would allow him to continue his recovery.”
Tim and Lou Anne appreciated the community aspect of StepUP for their son. They also liked the mission of StepUP: being able to live in recovery and pursue a higher education in a university, a university that also focused on diversity and non-traditional students.
So when Lou Anne and Tim learned of students who loved Augsburg and StepUP but had to leave because they couldn’t afford it, they knew they could help.
“We want to be part of the solution, to help students realize their potential. StepUP parents have already spent a lot of money on treatment and often can’t afford to send their kids to Augsburg also.”
The Sexton’s set up a StepUP Endowment Fund in 2020. It is a blended gift which includes a cash gift, a future IRA distribution, and a bequest in their estate. They hope their gift will help future StepUP students who can’t afford to go to or stay in StepUP.
“StepUP actually helped our entire family. It’s a great investment.”
“Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.” – Confucius
The StepUP Gala was a night to celebrate how the StepUP Program at Augsburg University has helped students champion lives of recovery, achieve academic success, and thrive in a community of accountability and support.
With the strength and support of the StepUP community, we rose to meet this goal. This year’s Gala generated over $425,000 for the program in one evening. The event was thoughtfully planned by the StepUP Board and the Gala committee including co-chairs Cindy Piper and Douglass Sill.
Highlights of the Gala included:
Nearly 350 guests in attendance
Emcee Leah McLean, from KSTP 5 Eyewitness News
Neil King ’18, Alumni Speaker
Alexa Anderson ’19, Student Speaker
Toby Piper LaBelle Award recipients Jon and Julz Schwingler
A special appearance by Senator Amy Klobuchar
We hope to continue to build on this generous momentum from the Gala. If you wish to make a gift to support the StepUP program, visit StepUP Giving and indicate Gala gift in the comments field.
Thank you to all who joined us for the “We Rise” StepUP Gala. We firmly believe that a student should not have to choose between recovery and a college education. Your support will help make that possible today, and for years to come.
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.”
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.
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.
“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.”
It took just one year for Augsburg to make its indelible mark on Marlys Morland ‘54, who has pledged a sizeable increase to the Marlys B. and Robert Backlund Morland Scholarship, established in 2011 as part of the couple’s estate plan.
“I really did like Augsburg. The Christian influence was so sincere, and faith entered into everything,” says Marlys. “I was there when Bernhard Chistensen was president. His wife used to come over to the dorm for an evening talk with us. They were just good, kind people.”
One thing she remembers about her year at Augsburg was a dentist’s visit to her health class, where he had to listen to student complaints about rising dental care costs. Coincidentally, she had to have three wisdom teeth removed that summer. The $150 bill meant that she had to drop out of school, even though she was working 20 hours a week at Swedish Hospital, making 93 cents an hour.
“I found out partway through the year that other college students only got 76 cents an hour, so I was lucky. But I never got a penny from my parents—they couldn’t afford it—and I knew I wasn’t going to be able to go back to school,” she says. Instead, she took a national Lutheran youth leader’s advice to move to Helena, Montana, where she discovered her love for working with young people and also taught adult Bible classes. She went on to become a parish worker in Portland, Oregon, where she met her husband. The couple settled in Newberg, Oregon, in 1971.
When the youngest of their three children entered school, Marlys finished her degree at Portland State University and taught elementary and junior high school for 25 years. She retired early to travel with her husband, Robert, until he died in 2008.
Thanks to her career and extended family experience, she understands the special challenges and struggles that even the most academically gifted students face. “We designed our Augsburg scholarship to support the StepUP program. We also support students who are majoring in Bible and planning to go on to seminary,” she says. “There is such a need these days. I don’t want them to have a lot of debt when they are ready to start their work.”
Marlys notes how much Augsburg and its student population have changed. She grew up near Alexandria in Holmes City, population 65, where “we went to the Swedish Lutheran Church. We knew people who went to the Norwegian Lutheran Church, and some who went to the Finnish Lutheran Church, but we thought the Germans were really different,” she recalls.
She embraces the Augsburg of today. “We meant well, but we didn’t think about helping the community. We were struggling just to take care of ourselves, and everyone was just like us,” she says. “Today students are reaching out and helping others in the community who aren’t just like them. That is so important.”