Teaching Kids to Get High on Life

By Maer Roshan 10/25/11

Millionaire San Diego broker and surfer Jon Sundt lost two siblings to drugs. Tired of the "Just Say No" approach, he dedicated himself to providing kids with a real alternative.

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Sundt's mission: to make sure the kids are all right

From an outsider’s perspective, it might be tempting to say that Jon Sundt has a charmed life: a lifelong resident of La Jolla, the happily married father of two is the president and CEO of Altegris Investments, a company that provides investors with access to hedge funds and is quoted in a variety of leading financial publications.

But Sundt’s early life wasn’t quite so sunny. The second of four children, Sundt’s two brothers began experimenting with drugs in junior high school. Immediately taking on the role of leader, Jon led interventions on his brothers long before the practice became common enough for it to be documented on television. Yet despite all the efforts, Sundt’s brother Steven died of a cocaine overdose in the back seat of a police car in 1988 and his brother Eric committed suicide after a lengthy battle with addiction in 1994. Always interested in what it was that got them hooked in the first place, Sundt decided to focus whatever time and resources he had on drug prevention.

In 1994, he launched the Sundt Memorial Foundation—a group dedicated to doing what other drug prevention groups have often not been able to accomplish: actually preventing kids from doing drugs. Their main focus has been on their highly acclaimed Natural High DVD Series, five videos targeted to middle schoolers (see two of them below) that star drug-free role models kids admire—from pro surfers like Kelly Slater to skateboarders like Tony Hawk to Hills star and bestselling author Lauren Conrad. The Morgan le Fay Dreams Foundation, founded in 2005 and endowed by Paul McCulley—recently retired senior partner of financial giant PIMCO—has been a major sponsor of Natural High for many years. (And, as disclosed in a recent SEC filing, McCulley is also the sole outside board member of Recovery Media, the parent company of The Fix, leading its major equity infusion.) 

Each year, a new Natural High video is sent, gratis, to every educator in the Sundt Memorial Foundation’s Education Network (videos from previous years can be purchased for between $20-$30 from their online store). The foundation's major event is a gala fundraiser—this year, it will be held Friday, October 28th at 6 pm at the Scripps Seaside Forum in La Jolla and will honor Cassadee Pope, the lead singer for Hey Monday. (Tickets can be purchased here). Sundt sat down with The Fix to discuss his family history, the Natural High videos, and his mission to make drug prevention look cooler than drugs.



What made you want to do this?

My brothers and I were very tight, just a year apart—we were like triplets. And they took a turn in junior high and started getting involved in drugs. When I buried my second brother, Eric, I was just really despondent. We had gone the recovery route—at 18 years old, I was running interventions for my brothers because my dad was out of the picture at the time, and we ended up losing that battle. I realized that I wanted to do something. Something inside of me said, “I’ve got to do something about this,” and I decided to focus on prevention. 

Did you want to focus on prevention because recovery didn’t work for your brothers?

I’m really a fan of recovery programs but they’re messy, expensive and are really dramatic undertakings. I’ve been involved in several interventions, and they’ve been successful. But I felt that I wanted to focus on prevention. I wanted to know what was it that got my brothers interested in drugs in the first place, what was it that tickled their fancy and got them to think it was cool. And I realized it was really the drug culture. The drug and alcohol culture markets itself, either implicitly or explicitly, as cool. Kids want to belong, they don’t want to feel left out, and they want to fit in. If you’re at risk with a kid, if you don’t have a strong family, and they don’t have a strong interest in sports or natural highs, or they’re predisposed to addiction, it can become a disastrous chain of events. So I thought, “What would it take to convince kids what adults already know—that drugs aren’t cool, that alcohol addiction is not cool, that it ruins lives?” When you’re 25 or 30, you get that, but when you’re 15 or 16, you don’t. 

Why do you think you weren’t tempted to use drugs the way your brothers were?

I had a lot of responsibility as a big brother, and I saw what happened to my brothers as it was happening, and I didn’t want to go there. I was really into rock climbing and surfing and the outdoors. I remember being in small groups at local hospitals with my brothers and thinking, “I don’t want to be like those people, I don’t want to be like my brothers.” 

Do you think they were just genetically predisposed in a way that you weren’t?

I think there’s probably a lot of evidence to suggest some people are more predisposed to addiction than others, but I also think there’s a tremendous amount of pressure for kids to fit in, to join the club, and they brand drugs as being cool. If you look at how smoking became uncool, and you look at how AIDS in Africa spread—where nobody used condoms, despite all the warnings, and it became a socially acceptable thing not to use condoms—they had to change the perception in the hearts and minds of kids. So I thought, “This is the key, if kids can be educated in such a way that they realize that drugs aren’t cool, and if they want to achieve their best success in life, there’s a better alternative,” that became a calling card. I was going into schools and talking to kids and showing slides and telling the tragic story of my brothers, but I’d bring in an athlete or a model or a dancer—the idols that the kids love, and I’d say, “Talk about why you’re clean and sober,” and these heroes to the kids would say, “When I dance, when I play my music, when I skateboard, I’m getting a natural high, I don’t need drugs,” and the kids responded to that. I don’t think you can lecture a kid not to do drugs. I don’t think that works—in the same way that I can’t get motivated not to eat butter just because someone tells me it’s going to get me fat.

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Maer Roshan is an American writer, editor and entrepreneur who has launched and edited a series of prominent magazines and websites, including FourTwoNine.com, TheFix.com, NYQ, Punch!, Radar Magazine and Radaronline.com. You can find him on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.