Jimmy Hendon was given his first drink at age 2. At 14, he drank to erase his shyness. By the time he joined the Air Force and moved to Montana, his drinking was a big enough issue for him to land in rehab for the first time.
As the years went on, Hendon was drinking daily, which he hid from his wife and three children.
Alcohol controlled his life. He grew angry and jealous to the point that after a fight with his wife he grabbed his guns and set out to shoot a man.
The incident led her to divorce him, but it didn’t lead him to treatment.
One day, he grabbed his guns again, called his then ex-wife to tell his kids goodbye. She called the police.
“My kids watched me go away in a cop car. And it scared them,” Hendon said.
Seeing the tears streaming down his daughter’s face shook him enough that this time treatment stuck. But Hendon soon found out that for many in recovery figuring out how to live after treatment can be just as hard.
“I had taken everything I had and destroyed it,” Hendon said. “It was 31 years, since I was 14, until I went into treatment. The only thing I knew how to do was drink and party. AA taught me how to get sober. But it didn’t teach me how to live sober.”
Fortunately, he found out about a new program called Sober Life for people in recovery to socialize and stay busy without substances.
“The Sober Life gave me an opportunity to join a so called herd of people just like me. I got to see families that were rebuilding, people who had lost everything destroyed everything just like I had.”
The idea for Sober Life sprung from Alliance for Youth focus groups talking to people who were new in recovery. Alliance for Youth is a local nonprofit that rallies community stakeholders with the goal of reducing substance abuse.
Sober Life Program Manager Dean Snow started as a participant and volunteer.
“It really changed my life,” he said. “When a person struggles with addiction, a lot of them have trust issues. The people in Sober Life were really nonjudgmental because they had been in the same spot. I felt heard and welcomed. 
“These people genuinely cared about me. It was a big part of my early recovery.”
In the fall of 2018, Sober Life had 40 people at its first event, painting at Brush Crazy. Within a few months, it exploded to 300 members. 
Now more than 500 people are members and their regular activities range from volleyball to Native American drumming. 
All Sober Life activities fall into one of three categories – fitness, volunteer opportunities and family friendly events – all of which are key to keeping people sober.
Snow said people battling addiction often don’t take care of themselves and their health. 
Whether its water aerobics or flag football, the physical fitness opportunities help Sober Life members focus on their health and also replace the “fake happiness” drugs and alcohol provide with natural dopamine that makes them feel good.
Family events, like splashing around at Electric City Waterpark or pumpkin carving, create safe spaces for recovering addicts to rebuild relationships with people they pushed away or hurt.
“The worst thing was my kids looking at me without any trust,” Hendon said. “I was their rock, I was their lion king. And I demolished all that to the point where my daughter couldn’t even look at me without crying. 
“I don’t bring my kids into AA, but I bring them to Sober Life.  Because that’s where I’m doing the rebuilding in my life to be a better father for them.”
Sober Life members also jump at opportunities to volunteer, cleaning up parks, painting crosswalks and inside the Rescue Mission and pulling weeds at the community gardens.
“One of my favorite things to do is volunteering,” Snow said. “When you’re an addict, you do these bad things. When I’m helping out in the community doing the reverse of that, it feels really good.”
Most importantly, Snow said is all events are free to people in recovery and their families. People new to recovery often have destroyed their finances and need to focus on paying for basic needs. Sober Life staff reach out to businesses who support by offering discounts, but also rely on grants from United Way of Cascade County.
United Way invested in Sober Life early, seeing the need and the impact of the program.
“Without the United Way grant, I don’t think we would exist,” Snow said. 
September is National Recovery Month and to celebrate that and to kick off Stop the Stigma week, Sober Life has organized a free fun run Friday, Sept. 17, which starts at 4:30 p.m. in West Bank Park. The race is free and even comes with a free t-shirt. 
“What I love about the run is that it’s really a community event,” Alliance for Youth Director Kristy Pontet-Stroop said. “It’s for people who are in recovery and all the people who have someone in their lives who have been touched by addiction and for people who want to show their support of those in recovery.” 
Around 64,000 Montanans are fighting drug or alcohol addictions. Nationally, 18 percent of recovering alcoholics were able to abstain for one year.
Alliance for Youth surveyed Sober Life participants and 75 percent of those who responded were substance free for the previous six months.
Seeing the program’s success in Great Falls, Alliance for Youth is trying to expand it to Shelby and Havre. 
“I’m not a perfect person,” Hendon said. “But I have an opportunity with Sober Life to be a good person and to have a better life with my children.”
People can join Sober Life by going to Alliance for Youth’s website. To learn more about Sober Life’s regular activities, and to sign up for the Sept. 17 Recovery Run, go to the SoberLife406 Facebook page.
United Way of Cascade County asks for money once a year. Money raised during its fall campaign supports 28 local nonprofit programs and United Way’s community impact work. People can give monthly or one-time gifts through our website at www.uwccmt.org or can send donations directly to United Way at PO Box 1343, Great Falls, MT 59403.