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Sobriety champion Kevin Hart offers financial and emotional support to people in recovery

“Each recovery is independent unto itself, but all do have one thing in common,” Hart said. “You can’t do it alone.”

This fall volunteer and philanthropist Kevin Hart was awarded Augsburg College's Toby Piper LaBelle Award for his support of young people in recovery.
Courtesy of Augsburg College

If anyone understands the life of a young addict, it’s Kevin Hart. He began using drugs when he was 13, and throughout his teenage and young-adult years, his addiction only intensified.

“My youth was a very checkered time,” Hart said. “I started getting kicked out of high schools, then getting kicked out of colleges, and finally getting in trouble with the law. Connecting the dots, the central theme of my life was the pursuit of drugs.”

Now 30 years sober, Hart, an investment representative at Van Clemens & Co. in Minneapolis, has dedicated his life to supporting other people in recovery. He shows his support in a number of ways, including his work as a board member and mentor at The Retreat, a recovery center in Wayzata, and as an advisory board member and volunteer mentor to students enrolled at StepUP, Augsburg College’s sober living community. Hart has also been a major donor to both organizations.

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Hart said he is drawn to mentoring because he sees it is as one way for him to give back for the help he received when he was going through addiction treatment. He also views it as part of his ongoing recovery. Plus, he just likes to meet other recovering drug users.

“I can get emotional listening to people talk about their struggles with addiction, just because I know firsthand the hardship they went through,” Hart said. “The people I meet have pretty much surrendered to their addiction, and now they are asking for a second chance. Anything I can do to help provide that second chance as far as time and resources, I’ll do it. Carrying the message to other people is part of my program. So it’s a win-win deal, a gift for me.”

This fall, Hart and his wife, Polly, who is also 30 years sober, were honored by Augsburg for their commitment and generosity to the StepUP program. At the program’s annual gala at the Hyatt Regency in Minneapolis, the Harts were presented with the Toby Piper LaBelle Award for their support of young people in recovery.

StepUP program director Patrice Salmeri said that the Harts were the clear choice to receive the award: “Polly and Kevin Hart are leaders in the recovery community. Their dedication to young people in recovery is praiseworthy and notable. The StepUP Program is extremely grateful to have the Harts as part of their family.”

Drawn to the program

Hart first heard about the StepUP program through a fellow Retreat board member. The idea of a sober-living program for college students appealed to him because that was the time of his life when his drug use was at its most intense.

“It’s not just me: The late teens and early 20s are tough for many young people with addiction problems,” Hart said. “An opportunity to live in a sober dorm with other recovering students would’ve been a great for me. I wish there was a StepUP program 30 years ago.”

A few years ago, when Hart first went to Augsburg to meet with StepUP staff and students, he was inspired by what he heard about the program — and by the stories of the students themselves.

“The more I learned about it, the more interested I got,” he said. “Being a fellow addict and knowing firsthand what these kids have come through, to hear their stories and see them succeeding in college was very uplifting. My wife and I decided we wanted to be more involved with this program.”

Besides offering financial support to the program, the Harts have also occasionally offered up their White Bear Lake home as a sober gathering spot for students who like to spend time off campus. Kevin Hart said that while he realizes that he serves as a role model for the StepUP students, he makes sure to tell them that he is inspired by their stories.

“These are college students who have surrendered to their addiction and are looking for a second chance,” Hart said. “It great to hear what they have to say: In their relatively short lives, they’ve been through so much and they are open and willing to share their struggles with each other. The StepUP model is based on fellowship and support, and I think that’s why it works. ”

‘You can’t do it alone’

Fellowship and support are central to Hart’s recovery success. Originally from Tennessee, he first came to Minnesota to go to through a residential addiction-treatment program at Hazelden. There he met Polly, who was also in the program, and the two have been together ever since.

“Treatment romances are taboo because when you go into treatment you need to focus on yourself and your addiction and not be distracted by romance,” Hart said. “But Polly’s my soulmate, and we’ve always supported each other in our sobriety.”

After time at a halfway house in St. Paul, Hart said he “put down stakes” in Minnesota. His partnership with Polly has stayed strong over 30 years and three now-grown children. Because they know that the cost of treatment programs can be an obstacle for many fighting addiction, the Harts are committed to providing financial support to treatment and recovery programs.

Kevin Hart is generous with his financial support, said John Curtiss, president, CEO and co-founder of The Retreat, but the most important gift he gives to the program and its participants is his caring, focused attention.

“Kevin is generous with his time and his heart,” Curtiss said. “He really does make a connection with people. After board meetings he’ll go over and sit down and have dinner with somebody who’s trying to get started with a sober life. And it’s not just symbolic. He’s really interested, really invested in each person’s recovery. In every interaction he makes that intent clear.”

When it comes down to it, Hart believes that successful recovery is all about human connection. Through his own philanthropy and volunteerism, he hopes to build connections for more people fighting addiction.

“Each recovery is independent unto itself, but all do have one thing in common,” he said. “You can’t do it alone. You have to have the support of others and the fellowship and the accountability of a group to truly succeed in sobriety. If I can do anything to provide support for others in their recovery journey, I’m all about that.”