Derek Rygh looks back at his life and is surprised he is still alive.

There were things in his life he had no control over. Other things, he had control over, but a dark side was keeping him from seeing straight and going down the right path.

For years Rygh was a drug addict. He used methamphetamine and he manufactured it. If he had not made one important decision in his life on a dark winter day in 2005 he may not be alive today. He would not have his wife and two beautiful boys in his life. He would not have a place in Brainerd to call home.

He has been sober these past 13 years and has not had any desire whatsoever to go back to the dark side of drugs.

Rygh's life struggles began at birth. He was born with premature lungs and the doctors didn't know if he would make it.

"My parents had a pastor come and read me my last rights," Rygh said as he sat on his couch in the living room at his rural Brainerd home, with a Christmas tree and presents tucked away in a corner.

"But here I am today."

When Rygh was 2 years old, he had another encounter that could have led to death. His family was driving to Iowa to see his grandparents. Rygh was in the backseat with two of his sisters as his parents drove, when they were involved in a crash, killing his mother. Rygh and his dad were critically injured and his sisters were severely injured. He said they were in the hospital for a long time, but they all recovered and mourned the loss of their loved one.

"But here I am today," he said.

"Every holiday I feel bad for my dad, as we think about this time. It's tough."

When Rygh was 4 and 5 years old, he was in the hospital multiple times with pneumonia.

"It got pretty bad, but here I am today," he said.

Rygh feels blessed he survived his childhood, but much more blessed in surviving the next chapter of his life. The next chapter is one of shame and darkness.

"In my younger years, I became depressed and I really struggled with acceptance," he said. "I started smoking when I was 9. Smoking cigarettes in a lot of ways is like a gateway to (drugs) for a lot of kids."

When he was 12 or 13, he started smoking marijuana and drinking alcohol.

"I had some friends who lived close by and her dad always had marijuana so marijuana was always the easy thing to get," Rygh said. "Kids who don't feel like they fit in do weed. I always felt like I didn't fit in. I fit in with these kids, but I didn't want to. Smoking marijuana and drinking became a weekend thing."

A darker turn

Then came methamphetamine.

"When I turned 16 meth was introduced to me and I thought it was something I had waited my whole life for," Rygh said. "It didn't take long for the meth to take control of everything in my life and it changed who I was as a person. I began to not care for people anymore. Everyone I loved, I pushed away. It tore me down and I began to feel really depressed. I couldn't live without it and I did things, I did what I had to do to get it. Meth was my life."

"We robbed many businesses, people, stole vehicles and stayed up for days at a time," Rygh said.

When he turned 18, he gained access to his $75,000 inheritance he received in his mother's wrongful death lawsuit. This made his drug addiction easier.

"I got a lot of money and I wanted to do good by my mom and I wanted to see her in heaven, that was my goal, but yet I turned to drugs and alcohol," Rygh said.

Rygh was renting a home in Albert Lea where he allowed others to manufacture meth. One night in January 2005 the home became engulfed in fire. Rygh said the cause of the fire was not due to the meth lab-but the house was destroyed.

"At first I was scared and we drove away," Rygh said. "My friend dropped me off and I took off on foot and ran back to the house a few miles away.

"This was the night where I finally gave in. I didn't want to be that person anymore. I called the cops and said there is a house fire and it is in my home. I walked down the street, and sat down and it was at that point where I gave my life to God. I said I can't do this anymore. ... I need you (God) to change me, to change my direction in my life and my life was changed that night.

"That was my rock bottom."

Police arrived and Rygh turned himself in. Rygh was charged and convicted in April 2005 with felony manufacturing of methamphetamine.

"Though the lab wasn't mine and deep down I didn't want in in my home, I did allow it into my residence which makes me just as much responsible as the ones manufacturing it," Rygh said. "And even though I didn't want the lab there, my addiction and need to be accepted was a huge part of why I went ahead with it."

Road to recovery

While in jail, Rygh was accepted into a faith-based, inpatient treatment program through Minnesota Adult and Teen Challenge, where he started his road to drug recovery.

"I was happy for once and not so depressed," Rygh said. "I felt like a complete person and I feel so grateful. Meth had really hindered me.

"Even though I am not proud of what I did, I am proud of where it has brought me."

Rygh spent 12-15 months in the program and never fell back to the drug, not once. He learned about himself, the addiction and learned the skills to move on with his life. The program helped him tackle emotional and relationship issues and he gained self-acceptance and self-worth.

"The program was not easy, but it was my only hope when I felt so completely hopeless," he said.

He graduated from the program and went on to the Teen Challenge Leadership Institute, where he attended for two years and received an associate's degree in Christian leadership. He became a student leader and later was nominated and voted in to become a resident adviser for men.

"This was such a great learning experience for me," Rygh said. "I couldn't believe that the leadership of the school actually wanted me to serve as the leader for the men there. I have never been a leader before and it was a boost of confidence in myself that not only helped me prepare for my next stage in life."

The next stage

Rygh's next stage in life brought him to Brainerd. He accepted a position with Minnesota Adult and Teen Challenge and he has been there since the local branch first opened. He is in charge of overseeing the day-to-day activities, assuring tasks get done and handling client funds, giving urine analysis and administering medications to clients.

Rygh met his wife Jenna in 2009 through a friend, and they married in May 2011. They have two boys-Erza, 6, and Elias, 4-and a dog named Charlie.

"I know that without what I went through with the drugs, I never would have never had this family," Rygh said. "My wife and I became youth leaders at our church and it gives me a chance to share my testimony with kids and warn them of the deception of drugs and alcohol."

It has been 13 years since Rygh got sober-and his story is not done.

"I want to become a nurse, but you can't if you are a felon," Rygh said. "I have had a lot of hardships in my life that I have survived and a lot of that had to do with nurses and doctors who I am grateful for. My dad was in a motorcycle accident that left him in a coma for many days (before Rygh was born). Even the first responders were convinced he wouldn't make it and the medics were noted as saying that if he does survive he won't be the same. Well thanks to not only his own strength, but the doctors and nurses were a huge part in keeping my dad alive."

A way for Rygh to pursue this dream was to go before the Minnesota Department of Corrections' Board of Pardons to ask for a pardon, which would clear his criminal record. The pardons board is made up of Gov. Mark Dayton, Attorney General Lori Swanson and Minnesota Chief Justice Lorie Gildea of the Minnesota Supreme Court.

On Dec. 13, Rygh sat before the pardons board and said: "I admit that I was addicted and had been for years leading up to that night, and I can't take back what I was involved in, but I can give back from what I have learned through it all and make a difference. I really want to ... start the process of becoming a nurse. I am grateful for what nurses and doctors did for me and my father early on in my life and I want to make the same difference in other people's lives as well, but without this pardon I am at a standstill.

"I know that on the day of my arrest, I was on the road to becoming set free of my addiction. I have never, ever had a desire to go back to using drugs, alcohol or even cigarettes. ... I have a true disgust for drugs and a passion for those who are stuck in addiction. Going back is not an option and it will never be a part of my life again."

When the board granted Rygh a pardon, he said the weight lifted off his shoulders. He said it is hard to put into words how he feels when he was granted his pardon and forgiven by the government.

Pardons

Minnesota offers convicts the opportunity to be pardoned, if they can demonstrate they have reformed and are living as law-abiding citizens. According to the DOC website, when a pardon extraordinary is granted-what Rygh received-many of the lingering consequences of criminal conviction are lifted. The person is no longer required to report the conviction, except in limited circumstances. The conviction will remain a matter of public record, as will the pardon.

The pardons board meets twice a year to consider applications. This year, 16 of 30 pardon extraordinaries were granted. In 2017, there were 43 applications for a pardon extraordinary and 13 were granted; and in 2016, 15 out of 44 received approval.

People who apply for a pardon extraordinary must have been convicted of a "crime of violence" and 10 years must have elapsed since the sentence expired. During this time the person must not have been convicted of any other crime, such as felony drug convictions, which are considered crimes of violence.

The DOC also states applicants not convicted of crimes of violence may apply for a pardon five years after the expiration of their sentences. During this time they must not have been convicted of any other crime, including misdemeanors and misdemeanor traffic violations such as driving while intoxicated. If an applicant commits a new crime during the waiting period, the waiting period is reset and starts over again from the time the applicant is discharged from probation for the new crime.

The pardons board does not consider misdemeanors or civil matters such as tax liabilities, civil commitment or harassment restraining orders. The conviction also must have taken place in a Minnesota state district courtroom.