"If it happened to me, it can happen to anyone,” says James as he recounts his story. “Just because I was homeless doesn’t mean I wasn’t a successful individual at some point.”
He was raised in a middle-class Connecticut home, with working parents and four sisters and brothers. When he was 17, his dad’s job took the family to Texas. “It was a major culture shock,” he reminisces about the environment. Even so, “I did okay, made friends and graduated high school in 1978.”
“I went to work for US Steel Corporation and got into computers,” he says about the beginning of his Information Technology career. When the plant closed in 1987, he returned to Connecticut, lived in his grandparents’ house, and worked in the IT Department of Bob’s, a local retail chain.
Life was good. James got married, had a daughter, was hired by Lockheed Martin and was outsourced back to Bob’s. In 1998, Lockheed gave him the opportunity to work in Orlando. He jumped on it, sold his house, moved the family to Central Florida and built a nice home in a golf course community.
“I felt very good…working for a prestigious company…I couldn’t ask for a better job. I was making almost $100,000 per year. I was still learning…still getting better at what I do.”
“I was living the dream,” he expounds. “A condo in Cocoa…boats, motorcycles, cars, a truck…all that stuff. I’ve always been a bit of a partier…a drinker…but I started drinking too much.” And then James got a DUI. “It was the start of the end of my marriage. We began to have marital problems and I moved out and into the condo in Cocoa.”
That’s when James’ dream life took a giant leap downhill. In short order, he got another DUI, was put on probation for alluding law enforcement and sentenced to wear an alcohol ankle monitor, and was laid-off from his job. His wife – who had let him move back into their home - packed his bags and filed for divorce after he was wrongly arrested for violating probation by drinking alcohol. Even with a lawyer, that mistaken happening cost him five weeks in jail.
“I was livid,” says James. “Because my wife kicked me out for something I didn’t do.” He reacted by drinking in earnest, driving drunk on a suspended license, and taking drugs. “If I’m going to go out…I’m going out in a blaze of glory,” he rationalized. His “glory” resulted in six months in the county jail, followed by living in a motel on his 401K, and then a year in prison. Back surgery while in prison left him with health issues; and his divorce left him with the truck, his Harley, what was left of the 401K, and little else.
Running out of money, he moved to Tampa to stay with his “toxic” sister, and then Orlando, Texas, Mississippi and Pensacola in short order to stay with friends, storing his meager belongings in Mississippi. His sister sold the truck, so he traded his Harley for a car, moved back to Tampa and then Orlando. In 2016, he started working day labor in Sanford and then landed a job.
Still drinking, James slept in his car behind Walmart until he got arrested for driving on a suspended license. “They impounded my car with my stuff in it. I lost it all!” Yet, something in James wanted to survive. He was given a tent, set it up in the woods, got a bicycle and kept going to work. “Living in the woods was hell…I started to try to come back. That shows some tenacity!”
His health wasn’t as tenacious, though. A heart attack and seizures landed him in the hospital and back in the woods with prescriptions he couldn’t afford to fill. Thankfully, he had also been given the number for the Hope Team, a program of the Health Care Center for the Homeless. He called and “started a relationship” with them in June 2018.
“They didn’t let go of me. I did everything they told me to do….got glasses…got my ID back. They suggested shelter, but I said ‘no.’ I knew permanent housing was an option, but I wasn’t ready.” Another heart attack, additional seizures, and a renewed relationship with his daughter finally changed his tune and he applied for housing. He moved into Maxwell Terrace Restore Program in November 2019.
“This has been a salvation for me. It changed my life. I have a roof over my head. I started working with Audrey Sandford [his case manager]… acquired things…I’ve got furniture! I pretty much stopped drinking.”
“The relationship with my daughter is [continuing] through email. I’ve re-established friendships. I go to lunch. When I was in the woods, I had reasons to be depressed…don’t feel that way anymore. This came along just before the cold hit…just at the right time. There’s definitely more hope. I’m working on how to get back on my feet financially. I still have to take things one day at a time. I just met with a lawyer and am filing an appeal. Then, I’ll be eligible for retirement.”
James can’t praise Audrey and her team enough. “They are absolutely wonderful! They’ve been a great support…for my current situation. Between me moving in here and having a relationship with the Restore Program, my outlook as far as overcoming my addiction…this whole thing has become a Godsend…the timing of me coming here was a gift from God, cause I wasn’t going to make it. But I’m still here!”
And how does James sum up his story? “I went from king of the hill to the bottom of dirt. Now, I see some future even if I don’t know what it is yet. It’s a hell of a lot better looking out my door than looking out of a tent…so there is HOPE!
This California girl definitely didn’t have the sand and surf upbringing of many. Born to drug-addicted parents and put to bed in a closet, Amey entered the foster care system at the age of five and was adopted at eight, only to be “returned” to foster care at 13. Spending her teen years “locked away in a prison for kids,” Amey was an angry child. She felt unloved and struck out at everyone around her.
“I basically raised myself,” she explains. “They emancipated me at 17 [from the California Youth Authority]. I got an apartment and a job in a department store. I was going to show the world I could be an adult.”
Amey’s new, adult life involved becoming pregnant and marrying an older man she knew through the foster care system, thinking he’d understand her feelings. But that was not to be. Instead, he abused her and introduced her to heroin, on which she got hooked. “I liked it because it took all my pain [away]; but it gave me more pain than anything!”
After eight years in an abusive marriage, a new sense of determination emerged. “I looked at myself and looked like death,” she remembers. “I kicked him out, went to a women’s shelter and then moved four towns away. I went to Fresno State and started nursing school.”
Life was not all smooth sailing, yet she was progressing. Amey married again and had children, moving her young offspring to West Virginia when that relationship ended. In 2017, she moved to Orlando to build a bond with her son Jordan, whom she’d had to give up at birth. Though her intentions were good, the money ran out and life went downhill. “I was homeless and started to drink. I had nowhere to turn.”
Amey “ended up at Lakeside,” now Aspire Behavioral Health, and was referred to their Anchor Program at Pathlight HOME’s Maxwell Terrace Apartments. She can’t say enough about the support she received from Anchor’s Director, Reuben Butler, throughout her daily trials and brain surgery in September 2018. She graduated Anchor in October 2018 with a positive outlook and in a relationship, moving into an affordable Maxwell Terrace unit in the heart of her support system.
“Because I went through Anchor and lived here, it opened doors for me,” says Amey. “I tried to get back in the game and reconnect my brain [after surgery], but couldn’t do it. Then I saw a flier for the Pathlight Kitchen Culinary Training Program.” After applying, Amey let her guard down, realizing this was what she needed to connect with the abilities she thought were lost and the type of relationships she never had. As the weeks went by, “We became a family." Then, a knock at her apartment door, with Syr Rodriguez offering case management services through Pathlight HOME’s Community Services Program, was the icing on her cake. She now had extra support in her new journey.
Having recently graduated from the culinary program, Amey’s excitement about all she learned at the hands of Chef Esteban and Shannelle is palpable. “They care about us! They brought my passion back for life. There’s beauty in every single thing! You get hands-on cooking…knife skills…fish [preparation]. It was an adventure…every day there was something new. Chef brings it to life!”
Amey was also thrilled with the business skills she mastered and has considered pursuing an AA in business to help with her goals. “I want to do bakery and catering; I’d like to do dinner parties.”
Until January 2020, Amey had been employing her culinary talents at Lucky’s Market. She was promoted quickly and received compliments galore from her boss. Lucky’s untimely closing in Orlando coalesced with Amey’s decision to dissolve her relationship, which had become unhealthy, and to support her son in Ohio through a medical emergency. ”It was the perfect time to move on,” she said about grabbing her belongings and moving to cold Ohio. She’s planning to live there for the foreseeable future and, with her passion, cooking skills and goals, has already landed a new position. “I brought my culinary materials with me and have hit the ground running!”
Last and certainly not least in Amey’s new life is the renewed relationships with her children. “It’s here if you want it,” she says. “I’m 46 years old and just now getting it together. I wasn’t the best person either. Where I come from keeps me from going back there. This is for me…I wanted to reconnect my life…With love and support, so much more happened!”
Rev. Fred Maxwell was a pillar of hope in Central Florida.
Widely considered the father of our region’s black preachers, Rev. Maxwell preached throughout the community and served as pastor of St. John Missionary Baptist Church for 37 years. He was a civil rights leader, known for his intellect and eloquence.
Rev. Maxwell had great compassion for those who were suffering. Whenever he saw anyone in need, he wanted to find a way to make it better. He was particularly concerned with helping homeless men and women who lived on the streets, exposed to the elements without a place to call home. That concern led him to co-found Pathlight HOME almost thirty years ago.
Rev. Maxwell embodied the values of humility and hard work, and his impact on the community was recognized during his life with the Community Father’s Award, Orange County Humanitarian of the Year, Maxwell-Wright Lifetime Achievement Award and Florida Bar Foundation Medal of Honor.
Rev. Maxwell passed away almost 15 years ago, and we still miss him – his smile, his voice, his compassion, and his constant reassurance of our faith in the power of God to change the world. But we are proud that his legacy lives on at Pathlight HOME every day – and that his impact continues long past his death.
“I had a rough life,” says Deborah as the newly promoted Café Supervisor shared her story. Raised in Orlando by her loving grandmother and then an “auntie,” who only took her and her sister in so they “wouldn’t be in the system,” Deborah reacted by getting in trouble. “I just didn’t want to be there. She just wanted the (support) check. I would have done better in the system!”
At 15 years old Deborah ran away and basically “raised herself.” She moved in with friends and, when she got into trouble again, was brought into the family fold of her 23 siblings (yes, 23!), with whom she’d never before had a relationship. She got a job and “taught myself everything.” At 18, Deborah gave birth to a son and moved into her own place, maintaining a relationship with her son’s dad.
Throughout her hardships, Deborah was committed to working and loved to cook, having taught herself. She spent eight years as Assistant Manager at a fast food restaurant. Unfortunately, she lost the job after an argument with her boss. “I had anger and a temper problem. If I could take that back, I would,” laments the now-cheerful and composed woman.
“I learned from the experience,” she says, “How to control my anger…what comes out of my mouth…how to stay professional…how to respect others.” With that life lesson, Deborah began working for a temporary agency, which led in 2013 to a permanent position in maintenance at the Convention Center. She worked there until early 2019, this time leaving of her own volition for an offer in her dream field – cooking!
In September 2018, Deborah’s weekend convention work schedule and our free Pathlight Kitchen Culinary Training Program enabled her to do what she’d always wanted to do, but couldn’t afford, “to go to culinary class!”
What started as something to “teach me more about cooking,” turned into much more. “It made me happy,” she exudes, “Because I was around people who really cared and because I was given an opportunity to succeed in something I always wanted to do.”
“Chef Esteban saw that in me. He spent time with me, teaching me the correct way to do things…about temperatures…things I didn’t know. He even showed me how to filet a fish! He was very professional and took his time…always polite and kind.”
Even more remarkable for her than the skills, “He made me believe in myself! He saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. It gave me a leap of faith that I could go out in the culinary world. I would never have seen myself working in a culinary kitchen!”
Deborah now works in the culinary kitchen at Lucky’s Market Vineland, preparing and packaging their “Fresh Pack” delicacies, and has recently been promoted to Lucky’s Café Supervisor. To observe this dynamic culinary graduate, hear the compliments from her coworkers, and learn she’s already been Employee of the Month twice, one would never guess she hadn’t foreseen herself in this very position!
Deborah bestows the major credit to Chef Esteban and Shannelle, our Pathlight Kitchen Program Assistant, as they taught her well and referred her for the position at Lucky’s Market. They, in turn, point to her newfound belief in her own abilities. That belief shines through as she realizes proudly, “earning my Food Handler and Allergen Certifications (in the culinary class) helped me get my job.”
She is also grateful to the management at Lucky’s Market Vineland for their understanding during a medical issue several months ago. Because of their support, she feels even “more comfortable in learning new things and offering ideas.” In fact, Deborah loves preparing Chef Esteban’s “stew beef” so much that she’s introduced it, as well as some other dishes, to her colleagues.
Her take-away for prospective Pathlight Kitchen students is quite simple, “That’s the best opportunity you can have. It will teach you; and you will better yourself!”
Community partnerships are essential to a nonprofit organization like Pathlight HOME. They are an indispensable means to helping our formerly homeless residents with life’s essentials, such as food, clothing, bedding, kind words, and even a spiritual uplift.
One such partnership is with The Salvation Army Orlando Area Command and the man whose heart and residency at our Maxwell Terrace Apartments started it all – Corps Sergeant-Major Brian S.
New York born and raised, Brian worked for Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs in Coney Island and Long Island for 10 years. Always close to his supportive family, he was devastated as “people started passing away” when he was in his twenties. He reacted to his grief and loneliness with drugs and alcohol. That led to 30 years of active addiction, 17 of which were spent on the streets.
While homeless in New York, Brian won $37K in the state’s lottery. Feeling flush with money and determined to change his life, he left for Florida. “I thought I’d get away from drugs and go to Orlando.”
Two months later, though, he was broke and living under I-4 at Orange Blossom Trail. He’d blown the windfall on drugs, motels, and inviting unsavory people to share his motel rooms.
Brian’s lifestyle became a cycle of living on the streets, at The Salvation Army and Coalition for the Homeless. Luckily, “I didn’t get killed” on the streets, he says. Things got worse when, “On a drug spree, I ended up robbing a gas station. I didn’t have a gun. It was a non-violent crime.”
When he got out of jail, Brian hit rock bottom and prayed for help. His prayers were answered when he was referred to The Salvation Army Adult Rehabilitation Center (ARC), a six month recovery program. “It saved my life,” he says proudly. “I’ve been sober ever since!” That was 16 years ago.
When Brian finished the ARC program, the very same gas station owner he had robbed gave him a job and found him a room. Brian worked there until his boss sold the business and he lived in the rooming house for four years.
“I needed something better,” he recalls, so in 2008 Brian moved to permanent housing at Pathlight HOME’s Maxwell Terrace Apartments. “It’s a good way of appreciating your own place…my own bed, a roll-top desk, a better way of life.”
Having internalized a “save to serve” outlook at the ARC, his formerly-homeless neighbors provided him an opportunity “to see the needs in our community.”
“There were other people who needed help,” he says “One person came to me…he had a job interview and had no shoes. I actually gave him my shoes.”
Brian began preparing sandwiches and buying clothes for his neighbors in need. Still in close touch with the ARC and Salvation Army staff, he enlisted their help to provide food, clothing, volunteers to assist, and bibles. He established Saturday in the Maxwell Terrace garden area as the day and place to “give things out,” telling neighbors, “I’ll see you Saturday.”
“That was the start of my ministry,” he explains, “To meet human needs without discrimination.” Just as important to Brian was the sense of community his quest brought about. “[The residents] were learning to be a community…learning how to help each other,” he remembers. “You could see people benefiting from it…how we talk and know each other. [It was] bringing the community together.”
His ministry was meant to continue! When Brian’s gas station job ended, he started working for the ARC and, “Everything fell into place.” In fact, Brian’s good works only got better. In 2011, The Salvation Army dedicated a bus with supplies and volunteers to his Saturday morning ministry at Maxwell Terrace, enabling the charitable route to include Pathlight HOME’s Maxwell Garden Apartments and a nearby trailer park. That indispensable resource continues today, assisting about 130 very appreciative people each Saturday.
Though he’s there on Saturdays, Brian moved from Maxwell Terrace in 2013. “It was time to move on. I benefited from what I got there by helping others,” he says. “That was my need…It’s to help others, so they [can learn to] help others. Some people have to be shown. I had to be shown!”
Brian’s ability to offer, “A little nudge to lift them up and show that people care,” has resulted in another proud role in the community: Assistant Chaplain at the Orange County Jail. His past life on the streets, years on drugs, longtime recovery and spiritual core are the perfect qualifications. “I was out there 17 years with an addiction. Who cared for me? I’ve had experience with that,” he states.
And as one who definitely walks the walk, Brian says, “I wish there were more people who would help [others]. People come at the holidays; but they need to help at all times, to show others that someone cares. It gives us a purpose in life to give back to others.”