Minnesota North College: Meeting a Need, Transforming Lives

Some of the addiction studies students and instructors attended a multicultural training day this spring. / Photo by Minnesota North College

Minnesota North College nets funding for training counselors, changing lives of students in recovery

The shortage of mental health professionals in Minnesota, including those working as licensed alcohol and drug counselors (LADCs), has been well documented. One in four jobs in the field is currently vacant, according to an April Minnesota legislative report.

At the same time, the disturbing number of opioids, heroin and fentanyl overdose deaths has been surging since 2018, according to the Minnesota Department of Health. In 2018, 342 deaths were reported, in 2022, 1,002—representing a 192% increase.

This perfect storm of a rising number of those struggling with substance addiction, combined with a shortage of professionals who can intervene, gets even worse in rural areas of the state. One prime example of this shortage is in the number of LADCs.

In rural parts of the state, the shortage of LADCs is stark, as Minnpost.com reported last year. According to the Minnesota Department of Health, in the Twin Cities, there are 2,786 residents for every 1 LADC. In rural areas, the number is 13,576 residents to every 1 LADC.

With this perfect storm in mind, one community college program on the Iron Range in Northeastern Minnesota, has garnered significant grant funding to help train students to become LADCs and, at the same time, help those students, who themselves are also in recovery, transform their lives.

A Dual Purpose: Meeting a Need While Changing Lives

On Minnesota’s Iron Range, you’ll find an uncommon landscape of scenic pine forests, striking stands of birch trees, pristine blue lakes, and, occasionally, giant open-pit mines, some still in operation, others abandoned.

The Range also is home to Minnesota North College, formed by the merger of five long-standing community colleges (six campuses) in the area: Hibbing, Itasca (Grand Rapids), Mesabi Range (Virginia, Eveleth), Rainy River (International Falls) and Vermilion (Ely).

The college covers an expansive region that includes parts of St. Louis, Itasca and Koochiching Counties, extending from north of Duluth all the way to the Canadian border. The area is a remote, isolated part of the state, and has long contended with the challenges of multi-generational alcohol abuse and, more recently, opioid addiction.

To meet these challenges, the college’s nearly 30-year-old Addiction Studies Program, located in Virginia, has had recent success with securing sizable grant funding for its Associate of Applied Science (AAS) two-year degree program, which can lead to an alcohol and drug counselor temporary permit (ADC-T) and eventual permanent licensure for being an LADC through the Minnesota Board of Behavioral Health and Therapy. The program also offers a certificate program for those students who already have bachelor’s degrees—they can complete the program in a year and get an addiction studies certification. Those without a bachelor’s degree need to complete the AAS degree. Courses are delivered in person and through several distance-learning options.

Mary Kay Riendeau, the program’s department head and one of three faculty members in the department, has led efforts to bring in, since 2019, about $2.7 million in total grant funding from three sources: The Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS), Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota (BCBS-MN) and St. Louis County.

Rural counties like St. Louis County have been “especially overlooked, in my opinion,” Riendeau told The Phoenix-Spirit in a recent interview. “Legislatively, and State of Minnesota Department-wise, rural counties have been neglected and now you have a real problem.”

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Additionally, “we’re not just lacking in counselors, we’re lacking in treatment centers in this region,” Riendeau said, estimating the area has only about five treatment centers.

As a recent press release about the funding stated, the grant awards “all have the same goal: Create opportunities for students and increase the number of licensed drug and alcohol counselors (LADCs) in Minnesota, and help recovering substance-use individuals.”

We can empower recovering people to do this work for us…empower people to do something different.The majority of the grant funding comes from DHS, which has earmarked the dollars to support training that leads to the temporary permitting for the ADC-T and permanent LADC licensure, specifically for those students who are in recovery in rural areas, Riendeau said.

Mary Kay Riendeau, right, is the department head of the addiction studies program at Minnesota North College, which offers in-person and distance-learning options for students. / Photo by Minnesota North College

The DHS grants are actually a combination of state and federal funds, with federal monies coming from the Opioid Epidemic Response Advisory Council (OERAC), which is part of the 2019 Opiate Epidemic Response bill signed into law in 2019 in Minnesota. This law secures funds from drug manufacturers and wholesalers to fight the opioid crisis, while creating the OERAC to oversee the funding.

State and local governments throughout the U.S. are receiving billions of dollars in settlements from companies that made, sold or distributed prescription painkillers and were accused of fueling the opioid crisis, according to KFF Health News. More than a dozen companies will pay the money over nearly two decades.

The BCBS-MN grant funds help cover a variety of other specific student needs, such as aiding students with emergency funding for basic living needs like child care, rent and car repair, and for those students who may already have a bachelor’s degree and are coming back to school to enroll in this program but who don’t qualify for financial aid.

The county funds are for continuing education for current LADCs to receive training for counseling adolescents.

Riendeau said she hopes to eventually gain permanent funding for all of these needs, given the dual-outcome goal of this type of program. The synergy here of solving a shortage of LADCs while changing the lives of students in recovery is not lost on Riendeau.

“We can empower recovering people to do this work for us…empower people to do something different. If you give addicts too much time on their hands, that’s not a good idea,” she said with a smile. “So, let’s fill up their time and give them something productive to do, they can move out into their communities and do something useful…isn’t that what’s really important? If you give people worth, they can gain self-esteem, then find meaning and purpose in life.”

And what do students think of the program? Two recent graduates shared their stories.

Students Weigh In

Ely native Amy K. still lives in her hometown, which borders the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, serving as the office administrator for a long-time, family-run auto repair business. She said her drug of choice was alcohol, and now has 11 years of sobriety. She also has family members in recovery.

Amy, 54, had been pursuing a social work degree at the College of St.  Scholastica (CSS) in Duluth. While doing that, she found out about the ADC-T permit and LADC licensure offered through Minnesota North. She withdrew from CSS, enrolled in the Addictions Studies Program, completed it, graduated in May, and now will circle back to finish one year remaining in the bachelor’s degree at CSS. She ultimately plans to work full time as a counselor.

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“There is such a need out there, a shortage of LADCs, a shortage of services, shortage of facilities…I feel (Minnesota North’s) program is serving an important need in this region,” said Amy, who received partial funding for various costs through the BCBS-MN grant.

Another student, Racheal J., was arrested in 2016 on the Range in Virginia for possession of methamphetamine, was eventually convicted of the crime and sent to the women’s prison in Shakopee for 48 months.

Racheal, now 43, reflected that her incarceration was a lesson in grace. “That was the best thing that ever happened to me. I went through the treatment program, cognitive behavior therapy, for six months in prison.”

She has also been “sober since the day I was arrested” in October of 2016, and has returned to live on the Iron Range in Eveleth. She has been working as a certified peer recovery specialist at Partners Behavioral Health Care in Virginia, has also worked with Recovery Alliance in Duluth, and graduated in May from Minnesota North College with an AAS in addiction studies, with help from DHS grant funds. She plans to go on for a bachelor’s degree in order to be eligible for licensure as an LADC.

Racheal raved about Minnesota North’s program, including the faculty members who “have a passion for the material and for instructing and teaching,” she said. “It is nice to have people who have actually done counseling to teach us.”

She also said the program includes a relevant curriculum, covering topics such as case management, assessment and crisis intervention.

Racheal also noted how faculty members helped guide her and others, who have the baggage of criminal histories, through navigating the land mines of college and DHS rules and regulations. “Many of us were told, in other parts of our lives, that we couldn’t do this. But the Minnesota North program and instructors proved them wrong and showed that we could do it…I’ve been told many times…that I would not be able to do anything with my background and here I am.”

She plans to eventually work full time in the counseling field, recognizing the shortage of counselors in the state “and especially on the Iron Range.” Plus, she said her work is a way to give back. “I was told one time that if I don’t give it away, I can’t keep it…everything that I was given in my recovery, if I want to keep it, I need to give it away, give back.”

Angelo Gentile is a Minneapolis freelance journalist who has lived on the Iron Range and in Duluth.

Last Updated on July 8, 2024

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