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HOMETOWN HEROES: In recovery

When Nate Espinoza received a letter from the Grand Forks Police Department recently, he assumed it was related to a previous offense. His assumption wasn't baseless; Espinoza's checkered past includes DUIs and an academic expulsion from UND, as ...

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UND student Nate Espinoza is studying addiction counseling and has suffered from addiction himself. He also works at the UND counseling center and leads a weekly bible study. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

When Nate Espinoza received a letter from the Grand Forks Police Department recently, he assumed it was related to a previous offense.

His assumption wasn't baseless; Espinoza's checkered past includes DUIs and an academic expulsion from UND, as well as assault charges a decade ago in Texas. But he was surprised to find the letter was actually invitation to receive an award on behalf of Freedom Church for its work on the Grand Forks Community Celebration, an event in which Espinoza was involved.

"With recovery, I've actually been able to become part of the community," Espinoza said.

Espinoza credits his turnaround to counseling that helped him escape a life of drug and alcohol abuse. Now, he wants to help others who are going through the same thing.

Espinoza, who is studying at UND to become an addiction counselor, leads a student organization not only for students in recovery, but also for supporters of those efforts.

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"We want to leave the door open for anybody that has a passion for this," he said.

On top of that, Espinoza leads a Bible study in East Grand Forks and works part-time as the compassion coordinator at Freedom Church, where he helps those "who have fallen upon difficult times" and oversees a group of volunteers, Pastor Nathan Johnson said.

Johnson, who nominated Espinoza for the Herald's annual Hometown Hero series, said Espinoza has "such a heart to help to other people, taking really no thought for himself."

Making a difference

Espinoza's entry into drug and alcohol abuse started when he was a teenager in El Paso, Texas. Over the years he at least dabbled in marijuana, cocaine and other drugs. He called alcohol a "daily thing."

"I was drinking until I couldn't stand, couldn't stay awake," Espinoza said.

His grades suffered, and ultimately Espinoza said he was academically expelled from UND a few years ago. He entered counseling at UND, which he said "made a world of difference."

"I'm living a completely different life, one that I would never imagine," he said. "My desire is to spread a message of hope that this is possible for anyone."

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With his academic career back on track, Espinoza plans to graduate in 2017. But he isn't waiting until then to help others faced with the same challenges.

Espinoza leads Been There Done That: Students for Recovery, a group providing a "community of support and belonging" in a collegiate environment that people otherwise often find belonging in alcohol, he said.

"Alcohol is so ingrained in the fabric of college living that it makes it very difficult socially to try to separate yourself from it," said John Shabb, the faculty advisor for Been There Done That. "So having an organization where others are going through the same challenges is important. It provides a social network that isn't centered around alcohol or drugs."

While Been There Done That had been around for years, it only recently formed into an official student organization, said Tom Solem, a drug and alcohol counselor at UND. He said it has evolved into more of an "awareness and advocacy group."

That transition may be reflective of Espinoza's philosophy about addiction and recovery. He shares his story in the hope it will inspire others and change perceptions about addiction.

"For me, I'd rather be a voice," Espinoza said. "My disease is not my recovery, my disease is my addiction. My recovery is a thing of beauty and it should be celebrated."

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Nate Espinoza is a UND student studying addiction counseling who's suffered from addiction himself. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

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