Hidden Hometown Heroes

For the past five years, the Bismarck Larks, Bismarck Magazine, and Scheels have come together for our Hidden Hometown Heroes program where community members nominate the unsung heroes of our families, businesses, and community.

This year, we’re recognizing the survivors & advocates.

This includes everybody who has survived things including but not limited to cancer, accidents, drugs, depression, suicide and more. This also includes their advocates: the person who lost someone and is inspiring change because of it or the person who is leading a group of people inspiring change.

To honor the efforts of these unsung heroes — Scheels, the Larks, and Bismarck Magazine have joined forces to recognize these 10 extraordinary hidden hometown heroes in our local community:

  • Becky Matthews
  • Brynn Jensen-Voeltz
  • Jackie Stebbins
  • Justin Schlosser
  • Kelsey Zottnick
  • Kurt Snyder
  • Pam Emmil
  • Paxtyn Steckler
  • Ryne & Rachel Jungling
  • Stacy Schaffer

This summer, the top 6 will be recognized on the field at a Larks game.

Here are their stories:

Kelsey Zottnick


Advocate and Executive Director of Tracy’s Sanctuary House

In August 2004, Kelsey’s father, mother, younger sister, and now-husband were all traveling back from dropping her off at college when their vehicle rolled.

Kelsey’s mother Tracy died shortly after the accident. Because the accident was so far from home, they were forced to spend their time waiting in the hospital and a hotel.

Family who traveled had to do the same. There was nowhere truly comfortable or private for them during such a hard time.

Kelsey’s dad wanted to create a space that would be a sanctuary for families going through the same situation.

With his own money, he bought a home and converted it into a sanctuary for families with loved ones undergoing medical emergencies. Kelsey and her younger sister were both involved in the start-up of this non-profit.

Now, 18 years later, Kelsey is the executive director of Tracy’s Sanctuary House which has seen an estimated 4,500 families or over 10,000 people come through.

The home has a living room, two kitchens, a chapel, five bedrooms with seven beds, a laundry facility, and a private backyard.

The house can host multiple families at once thanks to the multiple bedrooms and two kitchens. Families can stay for 24 hours to six plus weeks.

The arrangement is short- term, but each family’s individual needs are taken into account. Kelsey takes inspiration for her work from her mom.

“I think my mom would be super proud of where we’re at. She just loved to give and anytime someone needed anything… she’d go above and beyond for other people. So really her heart and her memory lives on in this,” says Kelsey. “It’s taken me a long time to understand, but I feel like there’s always a reason for things, which is something my mom was a true believer in. We worked in the flower industry, and we would go to funeral homes and… she was always like, if God calls me home, it was meant to be. That was comforting looking back because I knew that about her.”

It’s this belief that has allowed Kelsey to be such a force for good: “Bad things happen but I think you come from them, and you change, and you can start to see the stars align to why that happened.”

Learn more at tracyssanctuary.com.

Stacy Schaffer


Advocate and Executive Director of the 31:8 Project

In 2006, Stacy Schaffer was an undergraduate at the University of Mary. A professor offered extra credit to any student who attended a talk from a speaker on sex trafficking.

The talk compelled her to quit her job and go on a mission trip to Guatemala where she met Anna. Anna was an eight-year-old girl who was sold into slavery at a brothel.

After receiving a tip, her group was able to intervene and help Anna out of the situation. Fast forward to 2015, when Stacy launched 31:8 Project.

“31:8 Project really comes from Anna’s story because when we deal with human trafficking, we see a lot of negative things happening, and we don’t always see a lot of successes, and Anna’s story is a success story,” says Stacy. “And the name comes from Proverbs 31:8, speak up for those who can’t speak for themselves.”

31:8 Project not only intervenes in instances of human trafficking, but they also work to educate the public to prevent further crimes.

They also run a survivor mentorship program that connects a survivor of human trafficking to a mentor who helps them accomplish, at the minimum, three life goals.

“The small successes keep me going, like when we’re able to help someone get a job or their GED or maybe they were able to go to the store for the first time by themselves because they couldn’t do that before because of the trauma they experienced. We have to remember the success stories because there’s a lot of negativity in this field,” says Stacy.

There are several things the general public can do to avoid falling victim themselves or to help keep others from becoming a modern-day slave.

It is important to be smart on social media both as user and when educating your children.

“There was a study that recently came out that said parents spend an average of 43 minutes in a child’s lifetime talking to them about social media,” says Stacy. “When we think about how human trafficking is occurring, three out of four cases are recruited online, so we really need to shift what we’re spending time talking to children about.”

Learn more at 318project.org.

Ryne & Rachel Jungling


Advocate for Positional Asphyxiation Awareness

Ryne and Rachel Jungling are on a mission to spread awareness of the danger of improper safety and preventable child injuries, an issue incredibly personal to them.

In January of 2019, Rachel Jungling took her eleven-month-old twins, Linnea and Anders, to daycare. Linnea was taken out of her car seat, but Anders remained in his car seat on the ground to nap.

Setting a car seat on the ground removes the 45-degree angle required to prevent children’s heads from slumping forward when sleeping, which can cause positional asphyxiation by cutting off their airway.

When the daycare provider returned, she found Anders no longer breathing.

“When the daycare provider found Anders, she called 911, and they did CPR on him for 40 minutes… They got his heart restarted, but he was never coming back,” says Rachel. In spite of the tragedy of her loss, Rachel is very grateful to the emergency responders who gave her and her husband a chance to say goodbye to their son. “They saved his life even if it was only for three days, and that really matters to us,” says Rachel.

Both Rachel and Ryne were teachers at the time of their son’s passing, and both their schools were incredibly supportive.

Ryne, a teacher at Mandan High School, was approached by the student council and their advisor about starting a scholarship in honor of Anders. The scholarship goes to one Mandan High student looking to go into the first responder field after graduation.

“Every field that has anything to do with emergency response, they were all a part of our story… that we can even provide a little bit of support for emergency response training is really cool,” says Ryne.

In addition to the scholarship, the Junglings advocate in whatever way they can to help prevent preventable injuries in children, whether that’s by sharing their story on various news networks including the Today Show, sharing their story in the third-trimester packets at North Dakota hospitals that go home with parents, or working with Safe Kids Worldwide.

While they never sought out these opportunities, they are grateful to turn something so tragic into a force for good.

“Throughout this whole process it’s been easy to see God at work in our whole story,” says Rachel.

Learn more at rynejungling.com.

Becky Matthews


Survivor of Miscarriages & Cancer and Advocate for Mothers

Becky Matthews has always been willing to share her struggles with others to help them through their own struggles.

“I’ve been a person that people have told things to, but also someone who has shared their experiences pretty freely,” says Becky.

Becky’s first child was born prematurely, and through that process, Becky was open and honest about the trials of her experience and shared with others any answers she found.

“I would get phone calls from other mothers saying this is what’s going on with my kid. I didn’t make motherhood look all perfect,” she explains.

Becky’s second child was born with a clubfoot which again made her search for resources and share them with moms in similar positions. After her third pregnancy with twins ended in a miscarriage, Becky joined a Share support group, but also became the person women would turn to for help when their own pregnancies ended in miscarriages.

Becky had two more children after this, and her openness throughout her experiences, good and bad, with motherhood made her a confidant for other mothers.

In 2013, Becky made the move from private to public, taking on more active and political roles such as being on the board for the North Dakota Women’s Network, on a council for BECEP, acting as a booster mom for BHS soccer, and becoming Burleigh County Commissioner.

However, in November of 2021, Becky was diagnosed with Mantle Cell Lymphoma which is not curable. Becky is currently in remission and has continued to serve the community through her position as Burleigh County Commissioner.

When asked why she continues to serve in this capacity, even with a cancer diagnosis, Becky responded, “to not just be a cancer patient. To go sit at that table and be called Commissioner Matthews, some days even just for an hour. And it gave me a purpose… I’m only 49, but I already look at what my legacy is and what I want for my kids and what I want for my community, and that gave me a lot of purpose.”

Learn more at beckymatthews.com

Brynn Jensen-Voeltz


Advocate for Suicide Prevention

Hope and perseverance are two words that Brynn Jensen-Voeltz and her mom Lindsey know all too well. Brynn was only five years old when her father took his own life and the life of his girlfriend, leaving Brynn, her sister Sophie, and her special friend Macie all without a parent.

As one could expect, Brynn’s father’s death made a huge impact on her life, but what Brynn decided to do from there was perhaps less expected.

“In Kindergarten one day, the teacher asked the students to write their greatest wish. For Brynn, it was to ‘go on mission trips’ and that was only the beginning,” says Lindsey.

Every August, on the anniversary of her father’s passing, Brynn goes on a mission trip to both give something back and to do something brave. The first year, Brynn did a 5K suicide prevention walk, but each year she chooses something different.

Sometimes it’s placing cards of hope and joy around a community, sometimes it’s giving away gift cards, but every year the mission is the same, to “spread hope and help people know their lives are worth living” as Lindsey put it.

This last year, Brynn gathered food, then traveled to Montana to distribute it to places where there is a need.

“We put a box by a playground, and there was a lady who was walking her dog. She opened up the box, and then she walked up to us and went, ‘look there’s free food in this box!’ But we didn’t say anything about it, and then she just walked away,” recalls Brynn.

Brynn’s impulse at such a young age to turn tragedy into an opportunity for greater good shows an inspiring wisdom and kindness. She says she hopes to continue to do these mission trips, spreading hope and joy to countless other people.

Paxtyn Steckler


Advocate and Creator of Max’s Mission in Honor of Maximillian Pio

Max’s Mission is a program meant to support grieving families who have suffered miscarriage, stillbirths, or infant loss.

The program is named after a child named Maximilian Pio, whose parents Paxtyn and Zach Steckler lost him shortly after his birth.

“We went into the first ultrasound to confirm everything, and they told us that something was very wrong with our baby,” says Paxtyn. “We got referred to a specialist, and it was confirmed that our baby had anencephaly… We were given a few different options, and we just chose to protect him and love him while he was here with us until God decided to take him home. We made it to 36 weeks until my water broke. We got rushed into the hospital, into surgery right away, and then my oldest brother was able to be there with us to baptize him and confirm him before he died.”

After a few months, Paxtyn’s sister-in-law Sam approached her and Zach with the idea of supporting other couples going through similar trauma.

“Zach and I had a ton of support, whereas most families don’t have that,” describes Paxtyn. “We wanted to help those families, not just with the comfort aspect but also gathering hard names and numbers of places to call after so they don’t have to sit on a computer and Google those things when they just experienced the worst thing of their life.”

From there, Max’s Mission was born.

Max’s Mission distributes boxes throughout the state through the Catholic Diocese of Bismarck, although the boxes are for anyone in need of one.

Boxes come with a folder of information like funeral homes, cemeteries, and other resources, as well as items like a journal and candle. Boxes are usually distributed to grieving couples by their family or friends.

“It’s become this little community of people who know that this exists, and they share that with other people,” describes Paxtyn. It is encouraged to also leave a meal or gift card with the box to personalize the box as well as provide additional support. “We just wanted to let parents know they’re still parents,” says Paxtyn. “Just because your baby is not here doesn’t mean that you’re no longer parents. Your kid still matters, and they’re always going to be with you, and you can honor them in so many ways.”

Learn more at bismarckdiocese.com/maxsmission.

Jackie Stebbins

Survivor and Advocate of Autoimmune Encephalitis Awareness

Jackie Stebbins is a survivor of autoimmune encephalitis, one of the rarest brain diseases in the world. Most affected do not even realize this is what is causing their symptoms.

“I actually thought that I was burnt out from being a trial lawyer,” describes Jackie.

But as her symptoms progressed, it became clear something else was wrong.

“I went into cognitive failure. I had no memory. Physically, I declined until I couldn’t walk by myself. Then, I began having seizures until the last one landed me in the hospital,” describes Jackie. S

he was officially diagnosed in May of 2018 which is when the hard road to recovery began.

Because it’s such a rare disease, the recovery process for autoimmune encephalitis has more questions than answers.

“Mayo Clinic told me they thought I would make a full recovery, but they had no idea how much time, so you kind of feel like you’ve been handed the worst thing that could ever happen to you in life, and it’s just like good luck,” remembers Jackie.

However, Jackie looks on the positive side of such a challenging process. “I was so lucky. Honestly, I think the way I recovered was a miracle,” she says. The first mode of attack, steroids, was enough to put the disease into remission. “I’ve never met another survivor who only needed steroids,” Jackie says.

After recovery and losing her hard-won career in law, Jackie had to make a decision.

“I could have just been bitter and said this wasn’t even my fault, why was this all taken away from me. Why did my kids have to watch me lose my mind? But I only have one life to live, so why live this really horrible dark life? Instead, I made the conscious choice to be like here are my brain lemons, I’m going to try and turn them into brain lemonade,” quips Jackie.

Jackie decided to resurrect her old high school dream of being a motivational speaker.

She has also written a book, Unwillable: A Journey to Recover My Brain, and organizes the annual Bismarck Brain Walk. Through her work, Jackie hopes to bring awareness to this disease, potentially saving someone else’s life, turning lemons into lemonade.

Learn more at jmstebbins.com.

Justin Schlosser

Survivor of Cancer & Advocate for Make-A-Wish North Dakota

Justin Schlosser was diagnosed with cancer at the age of six. Now 38, Justin does not remember everything from that time, but he does remember missing lots of school for radiation, chemotherapy, surgeries and medical tests and the feeling of dejection that came with that. In the midst of this, Make-A-Wish reached out to Justin about receiving a wish.

As many kids do, Justin chose to visit Disney World.

“I have many memories of going to Sea World, going to see Mickey and all the magical things that are in Disney World. I was obsessed with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and I got to meet them on my wish trip which was very special,” recalls Justin.

The trip gave Justin hope and courage to face the remainder of his treatment, and he has been cancer-free since.

After college Justin realized he wanted to do something to give back to the organization that had given him so much hope.

“Part of Make-A-Wish is to give hope, strength and joy to people, and that’s what I felt like it gave me,” says Justin. “That’s why I give back and help Make-A-Wish now because they gave me what I needed when I needed it most in my life.” Justin has volunteered at Make-A-Wish’s annual fundraising gala for several years now, doing what he can to support Make-A-Wish’s mission: Together, we create life-changing wishes for children with critical illnesses.

“I fully support that mission,” says Justin. “They helped me through my dark times, and I want to give that back to others as well.”

Justin’s whole family and extended family are involved with Make-A-Wish as well, volunteering their time and donating what they can to help this cause that so greatly impacted someone they love and care for.

Justin’s sister was even inspired to become a doctor after witnessing what Jason went through. “It transformed her life as well,” he says.

Despite all the hardships Justin has encountered, he lives life looking on the bright side.

“In life I always try to keep a positive attitude,” says Justin. “It helps you get through the hard times.”

Learn more at wish.org/northdakota.

Kurt Snyder

Advocate and Executive Director of Heartview Foundation

Kurt Snyder is a living example of a person’s ability to change. From seventh grade throughout high school Kurt found himself falling further and further into addictions.

“It wasn’t just alcohol. It was pretty much anything and everything, and it destroyed my life,” he says. “When I was younger, I felt like I had potential. For example, I was a good wrestler, but drugs and alcohol took me down a path that left the things I loved behind, including my family and the love of my sport.”

After high school, Kurt tried attending college before dropping out. Kurt found himself wandering from place to place until he ended up in jail in North Carolina, which was the first step to his recovery.

“My mom bailed me out, and then she was like, get some help, so I went to my sister’s in Texas. Her husband was in recovery, and he helped me get in the door of recovery… When I entered treatment, it was a life-or-death decision because if I was going to keep going, I knew I was going to die by the circumstances of my lifestyle,” he says.

Kurt would spend 128 days at an in-patient facility in San Antonio where he re-learned how to live his own life one day at a time.

“The trick of it is, if I live today the best that I can and I honor my values, you can put days like that together, and pretty soon you’ve created a better history for yourself… and your future looks different, too,” explains Kurt.

After leaving San Antonio’s treatment facility, Kurt decided to go back to school and earn his degree as a counselor. He came to Bismarck, where he wrestled for the University of Mary, taking third place in Nationals despite his age and health disadvantages.

Kurt also passed all his classes with exceptional grades, and upon graduation, began working in Bismarck.

In 2002, he began working at Heartview which at the time had only eight staff members and out-patient services. In 2005, the executive director position opened up, and Kurt applied and was accepted.

Since his time there, Heartview has grown to 121 employees with four locations in Bismarck, one in Cando, and one opening this summer in Dickinson.

“The mission of the facility just fits my life,” Kurt says. “We’re there for the people who are suffering… It’s not really work when you love it and it’s what you’re meant to do.”

Kurt will celebrate his 30th year of sobriety on June 10th and is incredibly thankful for what his life has become. “I remember in Texas just praying and hoping for a second chance at life,” Kurt says. “And I was given so much more.”

Learn more at heartview.org.

Pam Emmil

Advocate and Creator of the 5 Second Rule Bracelet

“Back in 2018 I started my journey in recovery. I had become heavily addicted to opioids after several failed surgeries. I had the perfect storm of medical things, and all my prescriptions came from doctors,” says Pam Emmil.

Around that time a new recovery clinic opened in Bismarck called Ideal Option, a medically assisted program intended to help treat substance abuse. Pam was the clinic’s very first customer.

At the same time, Pam started trauma therapy which she did for the next two years to get at the root of her addiction. Additionally, Pam began attending AA in Bismarck and joined a recovery group on an app called Clubhouse.

“You have to have a lot of tools in your toolbox when you’re in recovery,” says Pam.

One of these tools is the bracelet Pam designed after discovering Mel Robbins’s book The 5 Second Rule.

The five second rule is a method where you count backwards from five, take a deep breath, and either change a negative thought to a positive one or immediately act on a positive action. Pam loved the method, but quickly realized she needed something tactile, too.

Already a jewelry-maker, Pam designed a bracelet with sections of five pink zebra jasper beads separated by an aura bead. She would then count backwards touching each of the stones before resting on the aura stone as she made the positive change.

After keeping the bracelet to herself for a year, Pam began to feel a pull to share her story and her bracelets with others.

“I felt a call from God saying, ‘Pam I did not put you through this to not help people,’” describes Pam.

With support from family and friends, Pam attended her first vendor show, Applefest, in the fall of 2019. All 30 of her bracelets sold out. Each subsequent show she attended, she brought more bracelets and sold out every time.

Pam is now a Pride of Dakota vendor and attends several vendor shows, sharing her bracelets, but more importantly her story, with countless people.

“Just by sharing my story to others, it gives them the door to share their story… The stories I hear are very humbling. It truly feels like I’m doing God’s work… helping people break that stigma of addiction, break that stigma of mental illness,” says Pam.

Pam now has a website where you can order her bracelets. And to further her mission of breaking the stigma of addiction and mental illness, Pam has started to give motivational speeches, sharing her own story of addiction and recovery to offer help and hope to countless people.

Learn more at pamemmil.com.