Take a quick glance into Joe’s eyes and you see … nothing.
There is no hint that he spent six years in the Army, learning a trade he thought would turn into a career and a language that few Americans are brave enough to take on. And certainly no indication that this bright, gregarious 45-year-old senior at Colorado State University was homeless and living on the streets of Fort Collins less than two years ago.
“Honestly, I don’t know what happened; I got nickeled and dimed to death because things in Fort Collins were so expensive,” he said, shrugging off his descent into extreme poverty. “You never feel like it could happen to you, but I’m proof that it can. It was just a series of unfortunate events that really changed my life and put me in that situation.”
Now, take a deeper look into his eyes and you see … hope. Even in his darkest hour, he never stopped believing he would find his way back to being, well, Joe.
“I had been depressed for a long time, and I just wasn’t my noFinally cathcrmal self,” he said. “It was my frame of mind that was holding me down, and I just couldn’t catch a break.”
Finally catching a break
Breaks, though, sometimes have a funny way of finding those who need them the most. And that’s what happened one spring day in May of 2017.
Joe had pretty much hit bottom at that point. After moving to Fort Collins in 2016 to be closer to family, the Chicago-area native had long since run out of money for rent. He had to sell the truck that had served as his residence and enabled him to travel to jobs. He managed to find enough to eat, but a bike, a few items in a storage unit and a cell phone pretty much summed up his worldly possessions.
Joe was meeting with his case manager at The Mission in Fort Collins when Marc Barker and Maggie Walsh stopped by for one of their regular visits with veterans who gather at the shelter sponsored by Catholic Charities. Barker is a veteran and director of Adult Learner and Veteran Services at CSU, while Walsh, a Gold Star parent, is director of veteran initiatives for the university.
“Maggie asked me if still had my GI Bill benefits, and I told her that I did,” he said. “Next thing you know, Maggie is driving me to CSU to get the ball rolling for me to go to school.
“I knew it wasn’t a done deal, but I started to feel excited about the future again. I had not had much to look forward to, and this was an opportunity to start over.”
CSU’s ALVS office comes through
Barker and Walsh connected Joe with CSU’s vast array of services to help veterans succeed and then let the process unfold. Before long, he was enrolled for summer classes and had an apartment just off campus.
“I remember when we brought Joe to the ALVS office and introduced him,” Barker said. “Right on cue, he was a member of the community – the other part of his life was put aside. There was a desire on his part to change his course and he knew CSU could be the vehicle.
“We got him a work study job and set him up in campus housing and then got out of his way. Our philosophy is that if there are going to be changes, the student has to be the driver, and Joe has just been phenomenal.”
Taking the initiative
And how. Joe, who several years earlier had taken online classes through American Military University, has completely immersed himself in the student experience at CSU, seamlessly working toward a degree in international studies. After learning how to speak and read Arabic while stationed in the Middle East, he is considering returning as a trainer/advisor.
“I think Joe would make a great teacher,” said Andrea Duffy, director of CSU’s international studies program and Joe’s mentor for both his senor capstone project and an independent study course. “Joe is blessed with extreme curiosity – he loves learning. I’ve had him in four classes and his enthusiasm is remarkable. He always sits in the front row and he always brings something to the conversation.
“I love having non-traditional students like Joe in my classes because they bring real-life experiences and different perspectives to class.”
Finding his path to success
Joe’s story is a perfect example of CSU’s philosophy when it comes to veterans. Barker calls it a “value-based model” – emphasizing the strengths of student-veterans over service-related issues that might hold them back.
He’s now come full circle. Not only is he graduating this spring – oh, and he plans to go to grad school after that – he now volunteers at Safe Place to Rest overflow shelter, helping other veterans find their way…and hope.
“We want our veterans to know that we have bought into their experience at CSU,” Barker said. “Our leadership eats lunch in the ALVS center every day so that we can build relationships. We want to hear from them when things are doing well, not just when they’re struggling. We’re in the people business, and that’s the way we approach everything we do.”