Sandi Brustuen may not be Neil Armstrong or Charles Lindbergh but she’s a pioneer in her own right. Sandi, who received the Dr. Robert Custer Lifetime Award for Direct Service from the National Council of Problem Gambling (NCPG) in July, has spent the last 22 years advancing the field of gambling addiction treatment in Minnesota and beyond.

“Sandi was recognized not only for her outstanding record as a treatment professional, but also the influence she’s had nationwide through efforts like Vanguard’s in-service program and her generosity in sharing her knowledge and experience with those entering the field,” says Don Feeney, research and planning director title at the Minnesota State Lottery and president of the NCPG.

In the late 1980s, counseling for problem gamblers was in its infancy. No paths had been blazed and no established programs existed in MN.

“Project Turnabout started receiving calls for gambling help in the late ’80s,” says Sandi, a unit coordinator for the Vanguard program at Project Turnabout. “We looked around for places that provided those services, but couldn’t find any.”

As a result, Sandi took it upon herself to learn about problem gambling. Along with a handful of others, she worked to create awareness about gambling addiction along with a framework to help gamblers overcome their addictions.

“It was rather lonely in the early days,” remembers Sandi. “We went to high schools, senior citizen conferences and many other places to create awareness. Sometimes nobody or just one or two people would show up.” The sparse attendance reflected the lack of interest and knowledge about problem gambling in the early ’90s.

Back in those days, Sandi always kept a suitcase packed in case she had to go to St. Paul to testify before the legislature about problem gambling. Her efforts eventually brought more attention to the field.

Until 1995, Sandi and other recipients of the state’s six original problem gambling grants gathered monthly to hold informal conferences and training among themselves. “We talked about what was working and what wasn’t, and often supported each other through phone calls. It wasn’t a very formal training arrangement.”

Sandi has been instrumental in the significant changes that have occurred since the mid ’90s. Since that time, gambling participation has grown but there’s also been an increase in gambling treatment professionals, both in the state of Minnesota and nationwide. Sandi has played a large role in the state’s effort to train and certify gambling counselors.

What has not changed through the decades is Sandi’s commitment to the field and her empathy for those who struggle with gambling addictions. “What really got me going was the stories of desperation I heard … how gambling had taken people down financially, emotionally and with their relationships. I don’t think people realize how desperate gamblers can feel.”

What keeps Sandi so actively engaged in the field after all these years? “It’s exciting, and there’s always something new to be discovered about addiction. There are always new tools being developed to help people.” Sandi estimates that she’s been involved in the treatment of approximately 4,000 pathological gamblers during her career.

Sandi sees many challenges ahead for the problem gambling treatment field. “We have to continue to build awareness. There seems to be a block for so many people to recognize this addiction called pathological gambling.”

“Gambling is not going away and neither are the problems associated with it,” says Sandi. “But there are many people in this field who are willing to continue with the work that needs to be done. And really, that work has just started.”