Asked if she thought her work had made a difference, if she felt she had really helped people during her 22 years as Coordinator of Project Turnabout's Vanguard program, Sandi Brustuen paused, delved into her core to consider the question, and then gradually though rapidly was overwhelmed by the answer as her eyes welled with emotion and her mouth grew into a grin of unmitigated joy. “Yes, I do,” she said simply.
Asked if she thought her work had made a difference, if she felt she had really helped people during her 22 years as Coordinator of Project Turnabout's Vanguard program, Sandi Brustuen paused, delved into her core to consider the question, and then gradually though rapidly was overwhelmed by the answer as her eyes welled with emotion and her mouth grew into a grin of unmitigated joy. "Yes, I do," she said simply.
It's tough to fully convey the impact that Brustuen has had on pathological gambling treatment. With a unique combination of intellect, creativity and compassion she has directly aided thousands in overcoming gambling addiction, and exponentially more indirectly.
Over the years, she has accumulated a list of adjectives that go a long way toward alluding to this impact nationwide, and on July 11 friends, family and colleagues lovingly referenced them during a retirement celebration at Bootlegger's Supper Club.
"Pioneer, rock star, innovator and friend," they said.
"Sandi is Vanguard's living legacy," added co-worker Sheryl Anderson.
And, yet, for Brustuen, the most accurate description is far more modest. "It wasn't anything I set out to do. I was just living day by day and going where my higher power led me," she said. "I'm just a housewife from Morris, Minnesota."
A need emerges
Brustuen, now 64, was raised on a farm near the small town of Correll in Big Stone County. Shortly after graduating from Appleton High School, she married her lifelong partner, Mike, at the age of 19. The two would have three children before she would return to school in anticipation of a career at the age of 31.
Living in Morris at the time, Brustuen said she had become acutely aware of a lack of chemical dependency services and that she wanted to do something to help the area families in this vein. In 1979, she enrolled in a program at Saint Mary's Hospital in Rochester where she studied alcohol counseling and chemical dependency family treatment.
"Back in the 70s treatment was more harsh, more confrontational," she recalled. "At St. Mary's, chemical dependency was looked at as an illness, that people were sick, and so was treated with more compassion."
Following a year of training, Saint Mary's would retain Brustuen on staff for the next four years until her husband, looking to get away from the Cities, led the move to Granite Falls.
A friend of the family would introduce Brustuen to Project Turnabout. In 1984, she was hired as Inpatient Chemical Dependency Counselor, but would have to leave the post for a year in 1986 for health reasons. When she returned the following year, she was hired back on in a similar capacity, though this time as an outpatient counselor. In 1988, she was promoted to outpatient chemical dependency supervisor.
"I loved it. It was better than I thought it would be," she said of her time working in chemical dependency. "It re-affirmed every belief I had about treatment."
It was about the time of her promotion that Brustuen said she started receiving calls from people looking for helping with gambling.
"People kept calling and there wasn't anything we could do to help. We had a minister calling for a member of his parish, a bank president calling about an employee and a former client who was looking for assistance with a significant other––and that's the one that got me involved in searching for answers."
Brustuen began networking and was invited to a conference in the Cities. She discovered that there were almost no services to support problem gambling, save a few dozen Gambler's Anonymous programs across the state and exactly one individual in Minnesota who was a trained provider.
Following the conference, Brustuen would organize a local informational meeting attended by the state trustee of Gambler's Anonymous. "Quite a few people showed up and we started holding Gambler's Anonymous at Turnabout well before we started treating people."
While a step in the right direction, the Gambler's Anonymous program wasn't enough to quell Brustuen's desire to see a little recognized need in people better met. And so, with the encouragement of Turnabout, she set about the laborious task of creating awareness, building coalitions and helping to formulate legislation at the Capitol––efforts that would eventually bring one of the first six grants issued for the development of gambling treatment services to Turnabout.
It was 1991 when Project Vanguard was born and Brustuen, as Coordinator, was charged with overseeing the development of the program from the ground up.
"In the beginning we just sort of plodded along," she recalled.
Building a program
Brustuen said that the Vanguard staff first sought to attack problem gambling using the same methods used to treat substance abuse. What they found were a number of similarities but significant differences. "About 70 percent of the time, the drug and alcohol model fit alright," she said.
Over time, Brustuen and her counterparts would come to better understand the nature of the differences and, as a result, new methods for addressing them. Brustuen would eventually author a book/pamphlet on the subject, "Pathological Gambling and Chemical Dependency: Similarities and Unique Characteristics," which continues to be utilized as an educational resource at treatment facilities all over the country today.
Brustuen's understanding of gambling addiction, pioneering insights, and treatment methods put Vanguard's Coordinator in high demand for speaking engagements nationwide. More recently, it also brought her accolades.
In 2006, the National Council on Problem Gambling would award her with the "Outstanding Contributor to the Field" award. In 2012, the council would reconize her again, this time with the "Dr. Robert Custer Lifetime Award for Direct Service" which has only been given to eight other individuals over the course of its 40 year history.
Originally planning on staying on another year, Brustuen said that a lot of recent thought and prayer told her that the time was now. "I have my family, lots of grandkids, a husband who has been patiently waiting three years for me to join him in retirement...and it's just time to move on."
Brustuen emphasized that she continues to love the work, and that the opportunity to develop programming has been one of the most rewarding experiences in her life.
"I just want to have time while healthy to enjoy retirement," she said. "The second thing is that I have this belief that as people get older... I don't know how to put it lightly, but I don't want to be a 'hanger on-er'. We need to move on to our next stage in life so that younger people can move up."
What's in store in the days ahead for Brustuen is still emerging. She said she plans to spend a lot of time up North with family and that her and Mike will relocate, probably to the St. Cloud area. At some point, she says she'd also like to write a book or two, both fiction and non-fiction, but there is still time to figure that out. She will also continue to be involved in Project Turnabout through the Appetite for Life fundraiser.
"What I'm thinking is there's something else out there for me to do, but I'm not sure what."
In good hands
As for the future of Project Vanguard, Brustuen says that the program will be in good hands with new Coordinator Sheryl Anderson, of Clarkfield, and its strong staff.
"I'm not worried about the program," she said. "It's survived tornadoes and floods and staff turnovers––I do truly believe there's a higher power watching out for the programs and in particular, Vanguard. I have every confidence in the staff that's there now, which made retirement easier."
While Brustuen knows she has helped establish a rock solid foundation for gambling treatment, she also recognizes that there are new methods of treatment and insights into addiction that have yet to be realized. She is hopeful that those who follow in her wake invoke their own intellect and compassion to build off the work she's done.
"I love sewing. Putting together patterns to create something is a lot of fun and I suppose in some ways counseling is a little like that. A person comes in and they're broken and you try to help put there life back together. But they don't know they've lost the pieces, so you have to help them try and find those," she said.
"The sad thing about addictions is that the addict did get something from it. But even though they aren't getting that positive anymore, they have the recall of what it's like––so it's hard to get them to see the reality of what their life is now. And you still have to instill hope that they can change, because without that inner core feeling of hope, they're not going to reach for it... and you have to teach them to like themselves."
"Addicts," she continued, "these are good people that got sick. And they just need help and support. That's it. I just love them. I always did. Hopefully they'll find other people who love them and help them, too."