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Ending the stigma: ND first lady visits Dickinson for sober living home fundraiser

North Dakota First Lady Kathryn Burgum speaks at the 2nd annual Sober St. Patty's Day on Wednesday night. (Kayla Henson / The Dickinson Press)1 / 16
Kayleen Wardner, executive director of Hope's Landing, speaks at the 2nd annual Sober St. Patty's Day event in Dickinson Wednesday night. (Kayla Henson / The Dickinson Press)2 / 16
North Dakota First Lady Kathryn Burgum hugs Melissa McDonald, a former Hope's Landing resident. (Kayla Henson / The Dickinson Press)3 / 16
Brad Brown, regional director of Badlands Health and Human Services, and Sheriff Corey Lee listen to first lady Kathryn Burgum's speech at Sober St. Patty's Day. (Kayla Henson / The Dickinson)4 / 16
President of CHI St. Alexius, Reed Reyman, and first lady Kathryn Burgum have a conversation, joined by DSU President Thomas Mitzel (left) and Dickinson Mayor Scott Decker (middle). (Kayla Henson / The Dickinson Press)5 / 16
North Dakota First Lady Kathryn Burgum wonders at a cake that looks like a succulent. (Kayla Henson / The Dickinson Press)6 / 16
Dunn County Sheriff Gary Kuhn listens to Senator Rich Wardner at the 2nd annual Sober St. Patty's Day. (Kayla Henson / The Dickinson Press)7 / 16
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The Ramada Grand Dakota Lodge hosted Sober St. Paddy's Day, an annual fundraiser for the sober living home Hope's Landing, on Wednesday night.

First Lady Kathryn Burgum spoke at the event. She said accepting the invitation was an easy choice because the work that the organization does is needed in the community.

"What they do by providing these sober living opportunities bridges that gap between incarceration or treatment and recovery ... What they're doing here is a really great example for the rest of the state, and so I'm going to promote them as much as I can to try and encourage others to do the same thing," she said.

Burgum spoke about her past alcohol addiction, which started when she was in high school.

"I knew as a teenager that I didn't drink like others. I experienced my first blackout when I was in high school," she said. "I struggled with alcohol-related issues and episodes for the next 20 years of my life. I chose to live and work in cultures where there was excessive drinking, and I had no desire to attend events that didn't include alcohol—I wouldn't be at this event tonight. I couldn't imagine my life without alcohol."

Burgum described her road to recovery as a trying one.

"I could not stop drinking, even though I experienced many demoralizing, baffling and defeating drunk episodes," she said. "I'd stop drinking for three months, and then I'd start again. I stopped for a year, then I'd start again. That cycle continued for a period of eight years."

Now 17 years sober, Burgum works to end the stigma and shame that often surrounds addiction, a factor that led to her keeping silent about her recovery for 15 years.

"Sadly, only one in 10 people who need treatment for addiction actually seek it," she said. "I know, because I was one of those statistics. I knew for years that I needed help, but I didn't seek it because I was ashamed."

Brad Brown, regional director of Badlands Human Services Center, said he appreciates the first lady taking on that shame and stigma.

"It just amazes me though, what the first lady talked about—not really saying anything for 15 years," he said. "I still to this day—it's been almost 38 years—and there's still times I just don't want to, like when she asked us to stand. I wasn't sure if I wanted to, but then I thought, well, why not? It's a public declaration of recovery, and you get to a point where you just don't care anymore if somebody's going to say anything or do anything. It's pretty safe here to do that."

Brown said his experience with addiction helped him decide to become a licensed addiction counselor.

"I thought, well it's helped me; maybe I can help somebody else. I've been an addiction counselor now going on 30 years. ... Part of the recovery aspect is service and giving back. Most folks that come into treatment and sober up have this real drive or feeling to give back to others and hope that (others) can experience what they have experienced in their own personal recovery," he said.

The first lady spent time with some of the women who went through recovery at Hope's Landing.

"Hope's Landing gives the women the hope that they can succeed," she said, voice breaking as she looked at them. "That they're more than their past, that they can create meaningful, incredible futures, and mostly that they matter."

One of those women, Melissa McDonald, is now out of the home after 17 months and has been reunited with her children. She's grateful to the staff of Hope's Landing.

"It gave me my self-esteem back and that need for a family 'cause ... a lot of people's parents have kinda given up on them," she said. "Hope's Landing gives you that family environment, and also helps ... (give) you your worth back. I always thought I was a bad mom, and I was worthless, and I finally—I can actually look in the mirror and be okay with myself."

Hope's Landing's Executive Director Kayleen Wardner said the home gives women a place to practice what they've learned in treatment, which gives them a better chance of staying sober.

"Statistics tell us that those who stay the recommended time at a sober living facility after treatment have a 68-78 percent chance of succeeding in being free. That's pretty awesome, you guys," she said.

Wardner said there is a need for a men's sober living house in the area, and they're looking into getting one.

Over 200 people attended the event, including the governor Doug Burgum, senators, sheriffs, school administrators, behavioral health leaders, businesses and community members.