We have come to the final post with our Women of Saint Jude Retreats in honor of Women’s History Month of March 2015. We hope you have enjoyed getting a glimpse into the motivations and inspirations of each of our top 3 female employees that have worked for our company the longest. Here is our final featured Saint Jude Retreats employee, our Executive Director, Michelle Dunbar :

 Michelle, please tell us about what you do at Saint Jude Retreats.

I am the Executive Director of Baldwin Research Institute, Inc., the parent company of the Saint Jude Retreats. I oversee all operations of the retreats including hospitality/food, program presentation, marketing, and guest services (which is our call center) and I also work in research and program development.

 How did you begin working for Saint Jude Retreats?

I began working as a volunteer for Baldwin Research prior to the opening of our first retreat house in 1992. My educational background is in research psychology and I was fortunate to be personally involved with the researchers who started this program. Their goal was to find a more effective solution to addiction than what was available at that time (late 1980s). There were treatment centers popping up all over the country that used the 12 Step methodology. The researchers had seen first hand the low success of 12 Step programs and they knew there had to be a better way.

I, myself, struggled with a substance use problem and stopped using drugs on my own six months prior to quitting alcohol. I became involved in Alcoholics Anonymous, but never felt comfortable with the idea that I had an “incurable disease” called alcoholism. The researchers at BRI were operating on the periphery of AA at that time, doing their own research. They needed to see if AA was effective, and if not, why not.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but they were studying a group of young people who were attending AA meetings and had become friends. I became a part of that group. I was in a group that was told that there was no actual disease called alcoholism/addiction that renders us “powerless” over alcohol and drugs.

We learned that we had simply developed habits that were counterproductive and harmful. We had the power within us to change our substance use habits, just like any other habit. We learned that we could do and become whomever we wanted as long as we became willing to put forth the effort. At 22 years old this was great news for me, and my life changed dramatically from those humble beginnings. I volunteered in various capacities at BRI from 1990 until 1998 when I had my second child. I took some time off to raise my babies then, in 2002, I joined the company full time in the call center answering calls seeking help.

What does being an employee of Saint Jude Retreats mean to you?

Being a part of this amazing organization is truly a gift; not just for me personally, but for my family and all those with whom I come in contact. When I left high school and went away to college, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I had no direction and virtually no goals – except I knew I wanted to make a difference in the world. So many people say that and hope that they can leave the world a better place. I can honestly say that, through the Saint Jude Retreats program I get the opportunity to change the world for the better.

 Why did you start working for the company in the first place?

I started volunteering initially because I was trying to change my own life. I was trying to make the transition from a self-absorbed, emotionally unstable adolescent, to a productive, stable, happy adult. While it was a transition for me, volunteering truly helped me during what was a most difficult point in my life.

What or who has been your greatest influence in the company over the years and why?

Well, for some reason I was trying to dance around this fact; but I have to say the greatest influence has been my father, Jerry Brown. He is one of researchers and founders of BRI. He and I had a very troubled relationship for most of my childhood and certainly all of my adolescence. But, as I became more involved in this organization, I could see his wisdom and vision for how he thought the world should be and how people should be helped. If not for him, his vision and the sacrifices he made so many years ago, the Saint Jude Retreats would not be here today.

Tell us about a situation or a person that you encountered through your work that you will always remember.

Wow, there have been so, so many people that I have had the privilege to meet and work with these past 25 years. As I am thinking of how I can answer this question, literally more than a dozen people have flickered through my mind. One young woman I remember very well. I was working in the call center taking calls. Her mother (we’ll call her Connie) contacted us around Thanksgiving. She was absolutely distraught. Connie said her 27 year old daughter had stolen their credit cards and run up tens of thousands of dollars on them. She knew that her daughter was on heroin and they had tried rehab before but she had relapsed right away.

Connie was skeptical that anything was going to help her daughter, but she saw our website and it gave her hope. Connie said that her daughter (we’ll call her Kayla), was facing federal charges for using the credit cards.Their attorney had advised Connie to find a program and perhaps the judge would allow Kayla to do that instead of jail or prison time. The problem was Kayla had taken off and she was unsure when she would come home again. After learning about our program, Connie said when Kayla came home she was going to give her an ultimatum: either come to our program or they would no longer help her legally or financially.

Two months passed and I had not heard back from Connie, until one cold day late in January. Connie called and said they would be bringing Kayla in the next day. She had finally come home. Connie said Kayla was unwilling and saying that she would leave as soon as they dropped her off as she had had such a horrible experience in a previous rehab, but they brought her anyway hoping we could change her mind.

They drove more than 6 hours to our Twin Rivers Retreat and basically dropped Kayla on our doorstep and left. She had cried, thrown tantrums, and pleaded with them throughout the trip and they were emotionally drained with a long drive back home ahead of them. Kayla sat in a chair in the sitting room outside the dining room for several hours. She refused to talk to anyone, look at anyone and she let us know she would not be staying.

The staff and guests introduced themselves one by one throughout the day, but there she sat. I let her know we had put her things in her room and told her, when she was ready, I would be happy to show her around. After a few hours, I could see her body language and face soften a bit. She watched as people went in to have dinner and I knew she must be hungry. Guests offered to bring her food and finally, she relented.

That young woman, who swore she would not stay, who was facing serious felony charges, who struggled with heroin for nearly a decade, who had failed at treatment programs prior to coming to our program – that young woman completed our program and changed her life. She quickly made friends and embraced the immense differences between traditional disease-based, 12 Step treatment programs and the Saint Jude Program.

After completing the program and finding success, she came back later to teach it. She’s since moved on with her life, started a career, married and started a family. She’s faced a serious health crisis and tackled it with grace and strength. She is not the same scared, angry, hopeless young woman that attended our program more than 12 years ago. Her story and transformation are truly inspiring and we’re still in touch to this day.

What is one thing that you have learned through your work for Saint Jude Retreats that has served you well over the years?

I have learned the immense power that each person holds within themselves over thoughts, actions, reactions, and even emotions. All people can overcome any hardship, circumstance or trauma; and that at no point do people actually lose control, unless that is what they choose to do. I have endured the traumatic loss of loved ones, more than one health crisis and the dramatic ups and downs that come with running a business. I have raised three sons and am still happily married to my first and only husband, all because of what I have learned through our research and my work at the Saint Jude Retreats.

What do you do for fun/relaxation?

I enjoy gardening and can’t wait for spring! I like snowmobiling in the winter. I enjoy walking and yoga and do both daily and I love swimming which I do twice a week. It’s the best low impact workout there is. I love reading for fun and for work, and I absolutely love spending time with my family, especially boating and fishing. I also love cooking; which is a relatively new acquired skill for me so I find it quite challenging. When the kids were young and we were so busy all the time we got into the rut of processed, quick meals that we knew everyone would eat.

Now that they are older and only our youngest son is still home we are committed to making homemade, nutritious, heart-healthy meals. I’m amazed as I started cooking fresh food from scratch, how truly easy it is and how much better everything tastes. Just like anything in life, in cooking the more time, care, and energy I invest, the more positive the results.

Our intent for every employee, whatever their position, is to be an integral part of the best program available for individuals seeking to leave substance use problems behind permanently. Whether as presenter, house staff, family consultant, driver, or any other employee of Saint Jude Retreats, we strive to live the program values and continue to create an ever evolving, self-sustaining, and fulfilling program which enriches our guests lives and our role within it. What we do saves lives and we are proud to be a part of Saint Jude Retreats. We hope our employee interviews have provided an insight into both our program and the extraordinary people who bring it to life every day.  

Check out our Senior Director of Curriculum Development & Implementation Cheryl Curtis’ story.