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South Central District Judge David Reich got tired of seeing the same faces in his courtroom, so he started a running program to help keep addicts from relapsing.

More than five years later, the Bismarck judge is in Ecuador with Los Angeles skid row inmates and is the inaugural winner of the GameChanger Award.

The award, which replaces the annual Tribune Awards, commends people who go above and beyond to do good works, promote change and show kindness. It was awarded Saturday at the GameChanger Ideas Festival, hosted annually by Humanities North Dakota to debate important issues and promote innovative thinking.

Reich was announced the winner for his continued work with Runners Against Destructive Decisions, or RADD, a group he formed five years ago to help people recovering from addiction.

Reich wasn't able to accept the award in person, as he and two of his RADD runners were in Ecuador to run the Guayaquil Marathon on Sunday along with Los Angeles County Judge Craig Mitchell and 20 skid row inmates who are members of Mitchell's Midnight Mission Running Club. 

They were unable to make it to the Guayaquil Marathon due to a nationwide state of emergency in Ecuador, but the group was still able to run a marathon on its own.

Reich recorded an acceptance speech that was played on video at the end of the festival.

"As a district court judge, most of the people I see, particularly in criminal cases, are there because of drug or alcohol issues. It didn't take me very long to realize that most of those people come back over and over again, and that's kind of the nature of addiction. We sentence them and put them on probation and have them get an evaluation and eventually they go back into the same environment they were in when they got in trouble," Reich said.

"It's probably not too surprising that we see them back in court again. After a period of time, I thought maybe we need to do something different to help change their environment and maybe improve their chances of staying law-abiding and maintaining their sobriety," he said.

That idea led him to create RADD in April 2014. The running group meets three days a week, year round, to provide a healthy outlet to those who struggle with addiction. 

Participants in RADD are encouraged to set a goal of completing a 5K run or walk and to train with the group for at least eight weeks before entering a race. The thought is that the discipline of running at a scheduled time, along with the healthy endorphins released in the brain during exercise, will motivate runners to make healthy choices and avoid destructive decisions.

Reich also leads the organization of the annual Santa Run, which raises awareness about addiction as well as money to support recovery programs including RADD. Money from the annual run, now in its sixth year, is used to buy running shoes and pay race entry fees for those who aren't able to afford the expenses.

At the 2018 Santa Run, Reich invited and met up with Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Craig Mitchell, who's running program is the subject of a documentary called "Skid Row Marathon."

Mitchell's program is similar to Reich's, but he runs with people living on skid row in Los Angeles to train them to run marathons. Skid row is an area in Los Angeles that contains one of the largest populations of homeless people in the U.S.

"If they can complete the marathon training and stay sober, they get an opportunity to run a marathon at an international destination," Reich said.

Mitchell invited Reich and RADD to join him for the 2019 marathon destination. Money raised throughout the year was used to help pay travel expenses for the two RADD runners chosen to run the marathon in Ecuador.

"It should be a life-changing experience" for them, Reich said.

This year, the RADD group expanded its reach by including inmates at the Missouri River Correctional Center. The group has been running monthly at the Bismarck-area facility since May.

The addition of the inmates in the program sealed the deal in the minds of the award committee members.

"While his RADD running program has been in place for over five years, the program went to a new level in 2019 with a running group being added at the Missouri River Correctional Center; 2019 also marks the first time local runners have gone to an international marathon," said Bismarck Tribune Publisher Gary Adkisson, a member of the award committee.

"A GameChanger is one who looks at a problem and redefines what is possible. That is Judge Reich," Adkisson said.

Reich receives a plaque along with a $1,000 cash prize, sponsored by United Tribes Technical College.

His wife, Ann, and Bismarck Police Chief Dave Draovitch, a RADD regular, came onstage to speak a few words on his behalf.

"Dave would have never dreamed five years ago when this started that he'd be over in Ecuador running a marathon," Ann Reich said.

Audience members audibly gasped when she told them Judge Reich had texted her and said the runners were unable to make it to the Guayaquil Marathon due to widespread protests across the country, but they were reassured after hearing that he, his RADD runners and the Los Angeles group were 3 ½ hours away from the capital city, Quito, where the most violent protests had occurred. And they collectively sighed in relief when told the runners were able to stage their own marathon in the Amazon jungle, fulfilling the goal of the trip.

Ecuador has been in a state of emergency since Thursday after President Lenin Moreno announced the end of a decades-old fuel subsidy program, resulting in gas prices more than doubling in the South American country.

Reich's recorded video acceptance speech demonstrated his fortitude in the face of such challenges.

"You drop a pebble in a pond and you have the ripples," he said. "I accept this award on behalf of everyone because addiction and recovery is a community and a societal problem, and it takes all of our community to deal with it."

Draovitch invited audience members to join the RADD running group for its morning runs, and Ann Reich invited them to this year's Santa Run on Dec. 14, where 1964 Olympic 10,000-meter champion Billy Mills, of Pine Ridge, S.D., will be speaking.

"I mean, who doesn't want to run in a Santa suit in December?" she said.

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Reach Bilal Suleiman at 701-250-8261 or Bilal.Suleiman@bismarcktribune.com

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