An accidental encounter became a total life-shifting moment: Kelly Lyndgaard’s Founder’s Story.
There was a time when I was judgmental toward those struggling with addiction. Because I had no close contact with the pain and trauma that I now know comes with addiction, I assumed people were just irresponsible and making bad choices. Can’t control your drinking or drugging? What’s wrong with you?
I didn’t have any idea how early substance use began or that women often struggle with addiction as a result of trauma. That was until I heard a woman named Emily share her story. This was the very beginning of my awareness of the challenging journey a person has to navigate from addiction to lasting recovery. I learned just how terrifying the pitfalls are and how easy it is to relapse and die. I had no idea that in my future, in my own transformed life, I would have the opportunity to use my business skills and experience to help develop a long-term solution to end the addiction/relapse cycle for women in recovery, enabling them to maintain sobriety.
If you are starting where I started, please read on. Because I had an awful lot to learn.
Back in 2015, had I known the discussion topic at my church that day was about recovery from addictions, I might not have attended. I would have said that addiction was about making bad choices and that it was the responsibility of the individual to make better choices. That some people have control and if they don’t, they need to find some. It sounds harsh, but as I had worked hard to get to my place in life - a physicist and engineer for IBM managing a Profit & Loss worth $1.1 billion dollars - I had high expectations of those around me.
Emily's story shocked me.
She came from a broken home, her mother had poor health and a 15 year old neighbor thought it would be funny to get an 8-year old high. This early start into substance abuse led to 15 years of addiction and homelessness. Emily and others like her have few choices and often become prime targets for abuse, sex work, and trafficking. Drugs and alcohol become a way to numb the unrelenting pain of existence. Emily knew very little about profit and a whole lot about loss. I felt a powerful need to know more.
"Bouncing back from my own life challenge became a motivating theme as I worked through my own mental and physical recovery and was planning, researching, and designing Unshattered."
Volunteering opened my eyes. I met women who were doing the hard work of recovery.
When I was introduced to the Hoving Home, a year-long residential addiction treatment center, I started meeting women who were doing emotional labor that I never had to do in my life. I was awed by their strength. I wanted to help. I am a maker by nature. It occurred to me that I could teach the women to make bags out of recycled materials, the way I had made a bag out of my grandfather’s coat as a way to remember him. I was unprepared for the impact the act of making something beautiful, and having someone pick it up and admire it, would have on these women. How something lit up inside them. They were radiant. I could see the power being creative offers. We set up a workshop on the Hoving Home campus and started a project making bags out of upcycled materials.
All the right impulses were not enough. Women would still relapse and die.
Teaching women to sew and make beautiful bags was good, as far as it went. Residential treatment is incredible, but after it, women without education, job skills, or a safe community to return to, would relapse and die. These were women who I thought had a lock on sobriety. It was devastating. I thought at first that helping them get good employment was the solution. We added a 6-month internship, offering the women a good reference. But, the reality was we were not solving the problem of a safe community to go back to. At the time, I still had my day job and I was conscious that the bag-making enterprise was growing. We were selling more bags, and the work was getting more sophisticated.
Could a separate organization with a plan solve the addiction/relapse cycle?
I had begun to realize that there was an interlocking chain of needs that had to be closed in order to solve the long-term problem of addiction relapse. We needed to close the gap on these links:
- Safe Community
- Purpose or Meaning
- Economic Stability
If I were to put my business skills to work to build something with lasting impact, I would need to change my life as well. It was a calling, deep and somehow inevitable. I felt a stirring, a vision, of a pathway for women to maintain sobriety in the long term. I decided to leave my career and set up an official 501c3 not for profit organization. My husband deserves a huge shout-out: he has been continuously supportive and neither of us has once regretted our decision.
The decision that probably saved my life.
At this time, I discovered that I carried the gene for breast cancer and ovarian cancer. My decision to leave my job very likely saved my life when, during the transition, I scheduled a long delayed Doctor’s appointment and learned I was a carrier of the BRCA2 mutation making me highly susceptible to breast and ovarian cancer. I underwent preventative surgeries for mastectomy and breast reconstruction and a full hysterectomy. It was a huge life shift at 39 years of age. Bouncing back from my own life challenge became a motivating theme as I worked through my own mental and physical recovery and was planning, researching, and designing Unshattered.
We hired our first woman in recovery.
On June 16, 2016, Unshattered hired our first woman in recovery, moving from a space at Hoving Home to the Orange County, NY Business Accelerator. If you have a business with some traction and the ability to scale, the accelerator provides space and industrial level equipment. After a year we realized that Unshattered could grow even more. So, we moved again to a 2000 SF studio in Hopewell Junction, NY, again doubling our size. We were already selling through Etsy and at events but now we had a front door. People surprisingly came in off the street and expected it to be a store so we created a full boutique. It turns out that visitors love spending time with our women artisans - interacting with the raw materials and looking into the eyes of the person whose life they change when they purchase a handbag. Now, once more, we have outgrown our space and are hoping to find the right place to expand our business and grow our team.
Watching Unshattered women become whole is a transformation for all who witness it.
Every time a new hire walks in the door, they carry so much shame. They embody the feeling that ‘I’m not capable, this is not possible for me.’ Then there are glimmers of hope. The idea that something is possible. They see it because someone else models it for them. They begin to believe that change and growth are possible for them. Eventually, they become the role model for someone else. Like watching a flower blossom, it is very, very moving. We almost know when they are going to succeed. It’s when we hear. ‘I want to do what Maria does,’ or ‘what Jen does.’ It’s aspiration after years without direction. That’s when you know there’s no going back. It’s our job to get out of the way and support them. We see tears, pain, laughter, and so much love in every woman’s journey. I cannot think of anything more fulfilling than this.
"It will take money - investment from our community - to make these dreams come to fruition. We hope everyone wants to be a part of it!"
Unshattered will grow in the next five years, and we will rise to meet the challenges.
I envision that in five years we will have 50+ women employees in sustainable long-term careers. Beyond that, I think we can scale our model in other job areas. We’re building career pathways inside of our business in marketing, sales, product management, and design operations, production, and finance. Additionally, there’s a phenomenon in our present premises of people coming and sitting with our team, telling their stories or the addiction struggles of family members. So we’d like to open a café or tea shop, staffed by women in recovery. It would be the same model, but offering employment in different skill sets. We want women to feel creative, valued and gifted, in whatever field they undertake. We want to develop more solutions for women with children including access to daycare. We’re working to build partnerships in housing, education, and healthcare. We envision every woman on our team in a position of community impact and financial stability. We want them all to be Ambassadors of Possibility, to show that it is possible to rise above the circumstances that you were handed.
A gift for transformation.
My mom joked that when I was a little girl, I made a lamp out of a ketchup bottle. It seems as though for my whole life my gift has been the gift of transformation. And my whole life has converged to put me in a place where I can help women transform their lives. I guess it’s true that I’ve been an ambassador of what’s possible since day 1.
Kelly Lyndgaard was the first of many Unshattered Ambassadors of Possibility, creating change that not only affects women’s lives, but also saves them.
Unshattered Impact By The Numbers
In the six years since our first hire, we have created full-time employment for 24 women in recovery.
We’ve served approximately 200 women with job skills training and career development.
Within a year, 100% of our women have exited transitional living and are living independently.
When you support Unshattered, you are offering women a combination of community, employment, and personal and professional development. This combination gives them the opportunity to find their purpose and live an addiction-free life. Just like your handbag, these women are being made new again.