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New scholarship funding means more people can get help fighting addiction

The Otto Bremer Trust has awarded The Retreat a $250,000 matching grant with a promise of an additional $250,000 if the center raises $500,000 from individual donors.

The Retreat is a residential recovery program offering an intensive immersion in the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Courtesy of the Otto Bremer Trust

Getting — and staying — sober can be expensive.

With prices running as high as $32,000 or more for one month of residential treatment, even people with good insurance coverage and supportive family and friends can find it hard to scrape up enough cash to get the help they need to fight their addictions.

And what if the first — or even second — round of treatment doesn’t stick? People who’ve acknowledged their addictions but still need extra support to push them out of their lives for good may have an even harder time coming up with the cash needed for a sobriety “tune up.” That means that many people who could use help just don’t get it.

These issues were at the top of John Curtiss’ mind when he, with the help of a group of like-minded leaders in the addiction field and business leaders in the recovery community, founded The Retreat, a residential recovery program offering an intensive immersion in the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. The group wanted to create an environment where people could step away from the world and focus on fighting their addictions — and they wanted to do that at the lowest cost possible. Curtiss is the program’s co-founder and CEO.

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“The Retreat was designed to make recovery more accessible to people in need,” Curtiss said.  “The unique thing about what we do is we’re really not treatment in the classic sense — we’re a supportive educational community-based immersion in the steps and programs of recovery.”

The Retreat immersion experience — featuring a singular focus on AA principles, lectures and Big Book study — is largely run by a team of committed volunteers with a demonstrated history of sobriety (as many as 400 help out a month). This way, Curtiss said, The Retreat is able to keep costs relatively low — $4,900 for a month’s stay.  The 158-bed program, with 80 beds at the main center in Wayzata and 78 long-term sober living beds in St. Paul, employs 77 staff members providing food service, maintenance and program assistance. The volunteer team picks up the rest, Curtiss said, including leading “probably 80 12-step meetings on the property every month.” 

“Through the use of volunteers, we make the program less expensive,” Curtiss said. “Because this is a recovery retreat and not a traditional treatment program, we don’t need to employ a huge, multidisciplinary staff.”

And volunteers also serve as living, breathing examples of people who’ve fought their addictions and won, he added: “When you go to The Retreat, you are surrounded by vibrant people who are showing what a life of recovery could look like.”

A helping hand

Though The Retreat’s price is much lower than average, $4,900 isn’t exactly chump change. Many of the program’s clients still have a hard time coming up with the cash needed to pay for their stay.

“Even $4,900 can be a lot of money for someone out there who is passing the family hat trying to get support for help,” Curtiss said. “Sometimes they can come up with a couple thousand, but the full cost can be out of reach. With scholarships like the ones we can offer, people can access the help they need.” 

To help defray the costs of time spent in focused sobriety, a number of individual donors — some Retreat alumni, some not — have stepped forward to create a scholarship fund. The fund is also supported by philanthropic organizations, including, significantly, the St. Paul-based Otto Bremer Trust, which this fiscal year awarded The Retreat a $250,000 matching grant with a promise of an additional $250,000 if the center raises $500,000 from individual donors. Last year, Bremer gave the program a total of $250,000.

Daniel Reardon, Bremer Trust co-CEO and trustee, said that his organization has awarded grant funds to a number of other Minnesota-based recovery programs, but he is particularly excited about the model practiced at The Retreat.

“This is the second year we have awarded them a grant,” he said. “I suspect it won’t be the last. And we’ve added a matching component for next year to draw attention to the good work they do. The Retreat is a different, nonmedical, cost-effective model.” 

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Focus on outstate residents

The Twin Cities is full of recovery programs, but Greater Minnesota is not. Because they want to encourage rural Minnesotans to pay attention to their mental health, Reardon explained that Bremer Trust has attached a stipulation to its gift that a large percentage of the funds be used to provide scholarships to outstate residents. 

John Curtiss
Courtesy of the Otto Bremer Trust
John Curtiss

“The need for [addiction treatment services] in rural areas is just as great as it is in the Twin Cities,” he said. “It’s just that the resources aren’t there. We figure there is suffering all over the place: How can we reach some outstate people? This is one way to do that. We can help get them to The Retreat.”

Challenge grants encourage organizations to expand their fundraising reach, Reardon said, and by doing that they also provide free networking and promotional opportunities for grant recipients. 

“Through a challenge grant ,the ask itself becomes a walking advertisement,” he said. And the stipulation that the focus be on rural communities further encourages a widening of the net of connection. 

Scholarships expand reach

Scholarship money has helped the 18-year-old Retreat provide addiction services and support to a growing number of people, Curtiss said.

“Since we opened, we’ve had 19,000 people go through The Retreat from around the world,” Curtiss said. “Thirty percent of those people get some scholarship money, usually between $500 to several thousand dollars. Part of our mission is raising scholarship funds from our donors who are very gracious to help make recovery successful. We’ve given away $3.4 million worth of scholarships since we opened our doors.”  

The Retreat is not the only program to offer scholarship assistance. (“Most programs accept insurance or county funds or block-grant money to support people to get help,” Curtiss said. “Probably every program uses a combination of funding sources to help people get help.”) But he believes that his program’s lower cost helps the scholarship dollars go further.

“Last year’s Bremer grant helped 96 people get help,” Curtiss said. This year’s grant is even larger, and he is confident that he and his colleagues will be able to meet the matching requirement.  

“For this amount of money,” he said, “the number of people that can be helped at The Retreat is just phenomenal.”