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“I’m Serving God’s Purpose”

Kevin Saunders GS’18 says Jesus delivered him from addiction over 31 years ago. Today, Saunders is a leader helping people overcome similar challenges at UpWorks, a Minneapolis nonprofit that helps people transition out of rehabilitation or incarceration.

By Jason Schoonover ‘09, content specialist

February 10, 2021 | 9:30 a.m.

Kevin Saunders GS’18

After overcoming addiction three decades ago, Kevin Saunders GS’18 is a leading advocate for people working to overcome similar challenges. He is the director of the Empowering Adults Program at UpWorks, a faith-based nonprofit in Minneapolis. Saunders designed UpWorks' programming to help people find success after addiction or arrest.

After years of addiction, Kevin Saunders GS’18 experienced what he calls a “road to Damascus“ moment on October 28, 1989. “I was delivered by Jesus,” he remembers.

More than 31 years later, Saunders remembers how hard it was to turn his life around, which is one reason he is a leading advocate for people facing similar challenges. Saunders is the director of the Empowering Adults Program at UpWorks, a faith-based nonprofit in Minneapolis that helps people find stability after addiction or arrest. Saunders played a vital role in forming the program, which pairs people coming out of rehabilitation or incarceration with life advocates to help people find their purpose and then follow their passions. “It’s a real need,” Saunders says. “It really addresses the very things that I went through.”

Saunders was born in Baltimore, Maryland, into a military family and grew up first on his grandmother’s farm and then in Washington, D.C. He was a three-letter athlete and earned an academic scholarship to Morehouse College before transferring to Howard University, where he studied engineering and computer science. There, he first encountered drugs and alcohol. He left school to start working full time when he was about 13 credits short of his degree, and he later fell into the “young life thing” and partying.

Saunders moved to Minnesota in 1989—the same year he got sober—but he found the culture wasn’t receptive to a Black man as he applied for jobs. He at first lived in a homeless shelter while working two full-time jobs. Despite his background in IT and developing computer systems, he eventually took a job as a van driver for what’s now Ameriprise Financial. But he worked his way up over 23 years, earning several promotions and retiring as IT program manager.

After Saunders went back to school to complete an undergraduate degree, he entered Bethel’s M.A. in Strategic Leadership program. Saunders says he has the God-given gift of vision, meaning that when working on a project to build something, he can imagine it and see it operating. And Bethel helped Saunders learn how to develop an organization. During this time, his friend Sue Hewitt founded UpWorks, and Saunders became her first hire. Saunders proposed UpWorks as his capstone project, so he worked through his initial program ideas with his classmates. “That’s something that the Bethel program really contributed significantly toward,” he says, though he notes the programming is different today.

Currently, UpWorks partners with several Minnesota agencies like Minnesota Adult & Teen Challenge, Turning Point, the Salvation Army’s Adult Recovery Center, Metro Hope Ministries, the Minnesota Department of Corrections, and many more. UpWorks connects with people near the end of a treatment program or incarceration. A person is placed with an advocate to receive coaching as they transition back into their life.

“Our life advocate is literally commencing them out of the program they were in and helping them figure out what their goals are going to be and what they’re going to do next in their life."

— Kevin Saunders GS’18
Saunders describes rehabilitation programs as a cocoon where people are focused on addressing illness and addiction. But transitioning back into society brings challenges. People with a history of alcoholism, for example, can return home to family members who drink at gatherings or in the evenings. Without a support system, Saunders notes people can relapse more easily. UpWorks’ advocates help people navigate challenging situations, and early results show UpWorks is working. Eighty-eight percent of UpWorks’ Empower Adults Program graduates avoid relapsing or going back to prison, which is much higher than the 62% national average.

Typically each participant meets with two life advocates for an hour each week for 14 to 16 weeks—but many relationships last longer. One key is self-discovery. Saunders found many people he works with don’t know themselves or have a direction, making it hard to dream and plan for the future. Participants need to be motivated. Advocates use proven coaching tools to help them discover their best possible potential. When advocates walk alongside people and work to extract what they really want, positive things happen.

Advocates not only keep people accountable, but they help people find resources and build confidence. It’s vital to have someone on their side whom they can go to for support. Saunders sees many enter the program not knowing what they want to do, and eventually, they forge a plan and goals. “Literally, it changes the trajectory of a person’s life,” Saunders says.

Saunders notes the people UpWorks works with reflect all of Minnesota because addiction affects everyone. “This isn’t a black and white problem,” he says. “This is a human being problem. Substance abuse and addiction is in every family. You don’t have to look far in your own family.” In fact, Saunders says he serves more white people than people of color. “That’s because there’s far more white people in the state of Minnesota than there are black people,” he says. “The reality is alcoholism is rampant in this state, meth use is rampant in this state, opioid use is rampant, and it’s the house moms, the housewives, the mother in the suburbs. It’s the guy in a two-piece suit who goes to work every day and has a traveler in his vest pocket.”

UpWorks trains its advocates to help people understand others and their differences so they can find similarities. People have looked to Saunders, who is also an ordained Baptist minister, for his perspective after George Floyd—a Black Minneapolis resident—died at the hands of a white police officer. Saunders has written and spoken about cultural awareness, diversity, and how we get to a better place. He often speaks of how we can shift conversations about differences to instead focus on the similarities between human beings. An important step, he says, is to acknowledge that racism and prejudice exist, and then people focus on the beauty of differences and then on our similarities. “I welcome it,” he says. “I think it’s a beautiful and wonderful conversation that we need to be having because it’s going to really take us to the next level, the next state of being if you will.”

Along with his work at UpWorks and in his ministry, he’s developing a curriculum around poverty dialog, and he’s looking for other ways to get involved. Looking forward, Saunders is expanding his reach as a community leader. “I’ve landed in a space where I feel I’m serving a purpose,” he says. “I’m serving God’s purpose in life.”

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