Last year around Thanksgiving in the early hours of the morning, a man in his late twenties knocked on my door. It was cold. He was dirty, shivering and very hungry. He told me he had no place to live.
We walked across the street to my office building. I showed him the waiting room and then the bathroom and suggested that he get cleaned up. I got him some warm clothes and something hot to drink and eat.
As he was shaking and eating, DJ told me his story. He had been on his own since he was fifteen. Both of his parents had been killed in a terrible car accident when he was fourteen. Life as he knew it ended that day. He had been living in a loving, close-knit family that did everything together, when his parents were killed by a drunk driver as they were coming home from a holiday party.
Unfortunately, DJ had no extended family. His Mom and Dad were it. Due to his age, he was placed in foster care. He was forced to leave his upper middle class surroundings and the only school district he knew to be bounced from pillar to post. By age fifteen, DJ had had it with the system. He ran away from his third foster home and third high school.
From that day on, this bright, articulate, broken teenager was forced to live the life of a man on the run. Circumstances forced him to drop out of school. He lived in abandoned cars, boarded up houses and makeshift box houses in the woods. The local McDonalds became his private bathroom and its' dumpster a place to sustain his nourishment.
DJ's experience with the system was so awful that the mere mention of social services, welfare and/or the foster care system made him physically sick. If given the choice between the system and life on the street, DJ would choose the street.
His sheer determination enabled him to eke out a marginal existence. He worked wherever he could. However as a high school drop out with no real wardrobe or fixed address, any real survival and progress up the social ladder was almost impossible.
As he moved through his adolescence, depression, poor choices and the basic need to survive caused him to engage in some very risky business. By age sixteen, he was drinking heavily and using any kind of street drugs that people would turn him on to. He would say that it helped ease the pain.
In the midst of all this adversity, he was still able to take his high school equivalency test. He score was very high for someone who never went beyond the ninth grade. Before his parents passed, DJ and they had often talked about his future. Both parents had college and masters degrees and were successful business people. Their dream was to see their son graduate from college and find a career path that was satisfying and fulfilling. With their untimely deaths, all of DJ's hopes and dreams died as well. Although he did manage to stockpile a few successful semesters at Suffolk Community College, by his early twenties, DJ had become a full-blown addict. He spent most of his waking hours stoned or drunk. His blackouts became more commonplace. He woke up in more and more horrible places, only further putting his life in jeopardy.
The night DJ showed up at my door, he was pretty wasted and had been beaten up. The little money he had, had been taken from him. He literally had nothing but the clothes on his back.
After he finished his story and satisfied his hunger, we talked about a plan that might help to empower this broken human being back on a road to some healing and wellness.
Initially he was very reluctant to agree to anything. The system had set him up for failure at fifteen, why would it be any different at twenty-five? With a little more pressure, he agreed to go into a rehab and take care of business.
While he was waiting for a bed, he stayed at a hospitality center. He said he was overwhelmed. He had not encountered such kindness, compassion and concern since before his parents were killed.
With much fear, DJ entered treatment right before Christmas that year. Our contact became a memory.
This past Thanksgiving, around noon, I saw a slender, clean-cut young man leaving our office building. As I approached him, I asked if I could be of any assistance. He gave me a nicely wrapped package and asked if I could see that someone who needed something warm would receive it. He wanted to leave quickly and did not want to leave a name or address so that his kind gift could be acknowledged, but I insisted.
As I insisted and looked into his eyes, I realized who the clean-shaven, well-dressed young man was...it was DJ. I couldn't believe my eyes. Externally he was a transformed man, but felt internally he was equally transformed. He apologized for bothering me on Thanksgiving and thanked me for saving his life last Thanksgiving. He quickly told me what had happened since we lost touch with each other last year.
He finished an intensive rehab program and has been in recovery ever since, living his life one day at a time. In addition to working on his recovery, he was fortunate to lock into an excellent job that is paying for his education. He wants to be a junior high school teacher and hopefully prevent other young people from walking down his road.
To celebrate his first year of recovery, someone gave him a sweater (that was the wrapped gift he was giving me). He was embarrassed because he could not give more. He wanted to celebrate having his life back by giving something back to the place that he believed had made all the difference for him. He went on to say that the sweater was merely symbolic of his transformation. He was clean and sober, working, in school and on the road to reaching a life long goal of being a teacher. More importantly for him, he was working very anonymously in a shelter on the South Shore. He was trying to give back a little of what was given to him when he thought all was lost.
DJ is a refreshing human being who was once on the edge of disaster. His story is a wonderful celebration of hope and a reminder of the power of the human spirit. DJ is the enfleshment of how the human heart can be transformed and empowered to walk the road less traveled.