The Spirit Is Strong

A historic glimpse into the extraordinary sense of promise and potential that permeate the Betty Ford Center
Betty Ford Center Groundbreaking, Betty Ford, Gerald Ford
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In the recovery of those who came before us, we see the promise of our own potential—a path to a brighter future.

Many look to history for warnings—to avoid repeating past mistakes. But when it comes to addiction recovery, history is a harbinger of hope and a wellspring of what’s possible, observes Jeremiah Gardner, former director of communications and public affairs for the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation.

“In the recovery of those who came before us, we see the promise of our own potential—a path to a brighter future,” he explains.  “’If we can make it, so can you’ inevitably leads to ‘if they can make it, so can I.’”

The Past Feels Very Close 

A recovery-history story collector, Gardner says the past feels very close every time he visits the Betty Ford Center campus in Rancho Mirage, California. Gardner recently had the privilege of looking through photographs, writings, artifacts and mementos dating from the earliest days of the Center.

“The history of recovery, both individual stories and the collective ‘we,’ hangs in the air at the Betty Ford Center—oxygen for those struggling to find hope in the present,” he shares.

Co-founded by former United States First Lady Betty Ford and Leonard Firestone, former U.S. ambassador to Belgium—friends who supported each other’s recovery—the Betty Ford Center retains a special aura that’s been present since the first patients arrived in 1982. That distinctive spirit, borne of lives transformed and reimagined, has propelled an evolving legacy—one that includes pioneering care for children and families, influential education programs for medical students and other professionals, and unprecedented public advocacy—and continues to draw alumni back to Rancho Mirage year after year.

The First Anniversary 

In 1983, when 420 former patients showed up for the first anniversary of the Center (an incredible 73% of all those treated thus far), they not only celebrated their health and fellowship but sent a signal to themselves and the world that sustained recovery is indeed possible.

Every anniversary since has doubled as an alumni reunion, with former patients rallying together, sharing stories, and then dispersing to carry a valuable message of hope to all corners of the world, just as Mrs. Ford did.

In 1988, at the 5th anniversary, an astounding 1,400 alumni showed up. In just a half decade, Gardner notes, the Betty Ford Center managed to open up a long-overdue national conversation about addiction. By the 10th anniversary, he says, even public figures like Hollywood stars Whoopi Goldberg and Liza Minelli, who co-hosted a fundraiser for the Betty Ford Center, were speaking out about the force of its mission and the needs of individuals, families and communities throughout the country.

At the 15th anniversary in 1997, alumni shared their deep gratitude, presenting Mrs. Ford with their own “Reflections in Recovery,” a collection of letters that moved her to tearfully declare it was “the most precious gift she had ever received.”

Five Former First Ladies 

Five years later, media icon Larry King hosted an unforgettable 20th anniversary event, headlined by five former First Ladies and two former U.S. Presidents. For the Silver Anniversary in 2007, legendary comedian Robin Williams brought his hilarious stand-up, the excellent new documentary A Legacy of Hope was unveiled, and Mrs. Ford received another gift—this time, a framed timeline of the Center’s first quarter-century.

With each successive milestone and those still to come, the Betty Ford Center humbly celebrates its rich history and the reality that its profoundly positive impact on popular culture, public discourse and health care is rooted in the lives of its alumni, whose stories are part of every souvenir, memento and historic occasion.

Says Gardner: “Alumni are the source of the very spirit that brings them back and keeps them connected—and the truth behind the hope we continue to extend to all those who need us.”

See More Photos and Artifacts

Enjoy a highlights reel of Betty Ford Center historical images and 40th anniversary celebration photos.

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