A PATH TO A NEW PURPOSE IN LIFE
For James, an Army Veteran, he has always found purpose through his work, first as a member of the United States Army then as an IT professional. That was until a stroke forced James to look at the world through a different lens.
James grew up in Springfield Ohio, the eldest of three in a middle-class family. His mother was a homemaker while his father was an engineer on the railroad. Both his father and younger brother were members of the Air Force so when finding a job proved difficult he began looking into joining the military. “There weren’t a lot of jobs in my hometown. I worked in food service and did some community theater but I knew I wanted to start preparing for a family and manufacturing jobs were hard to find.” So at 19 years old James enlisted in the United States Army.
“Becoming a soldier helped take a boy out of high school and turn him into a man. I received not only discipline but purpose. It taught me that I was in charge of my own life. Joining the army changed my life.”
He would go from basic training in Fort Jackson, South Carolina where he became an engineer technician, to Alabama and eventually his first duty station in Germany. By that time he had gotten married. While they were in Germany his oldest son was born. “I have experienced a lot of things but becoming a father was been my best and greatest experience.”
James loved his time in Germany where he worked on the Forward Area Alerting Radar systems. “Being in Germany was all about the mission. I loved being part of something bigger than me.” He loved it so much in fact that he knew wanted to reenlist once his contract was up but was told that he would need to gain some experience and spend time stateside.
That is how he and his young family found themselves in a military community in Ft. Lewis Washington. “Living there really gave me a sense of community. I learned that while I am responsible for myself I am also responsible for my neighbor. It was another lesson the army taught me, that you can accomplish more as a team than an individual.”
James spent the next 11 months there but ultimately decided not to reenlist. “I did not feel the sense of urgency and purpose I felt in Germany.” With his son growing up and his wife homesick he made the decision to move back to Ohio. Like many others before and after him, coming home and finding work to support his family proved difficult.
“I went through a series of jobs. Everything from working on video games to assembly line work. It was during that time that I began learning more about computers and doing IT work.” James would go on to work in the IT field for the next four years. “I really enjoyed the work but the pay was not the greatest and I had a family to feed.” So when the post office in the neighboring town of Yellow Springs was hiring James began working there part-time as well and even became full-time.
He worked for the United States Postal Office for over 13 years until the physical strain of being a postal worker took a toll on his body and he was forced to find another job. James then began working at a call center for a hotel taking reservations. He then became the director of that call center and eventually moved into an IT role. Soon after James, whose children were now older and he was divorced, moved to Columbus where another IT position opened up.
“I was doing something I loved every day and making good money doing it. I was stable and happy. I even got my motorcycle license. Then one night I went to sleep and when I woke up my life changed forever.”
James woke up almost completely blind. “They said I had a stroke in my optic nerve. It left me completely blind in one eye and with only 2 percent vision in the other.” James says losing his sight was almost like death. “I went through a grieving process. I didn’t know what to do. My doctors tried to help me navigate this new life but I went through a very deep depression.”
Because James’ blindness was not connected to his service he could not draw from his veteran benefits to get the help he needed. Navigating the Social Security system was slow and difficult. “I felt like doors kept being slammed in my face. It took me months to even get my cane. I still was not being paid any disability benefit.”
Though James was on FMLA, his disability proved to be too much of a barrier and he lost his job. He did try to find other work but again his blindness proved to be a barrier. This caused him to sink further into depression, “Work was my identity. I couldn’t do the job I was used to. I kept asking myself ‘What can I do?’ It really hit me hard. Not being able to work was a big catalyst for my depression.”
Once his savings ran out James found himself three months behind in rent. Though he was able to temporarily connect with a rent assistance program through veteran services, that resource also eventually ran out.
For the first time, James found himself homeless. “I do not remember the exact day but I do know it was in March. I remember thinking it was going to be chilly that night.”
James did call the veteran helpline where he was able to get a spot in an emergency shelter for one night. He then was able to transition to a temporary shelter and that was when he was introduced to Volunteers of America Ohio and Indiana.
“I am so grateful for VOA. They gave me time to reset and get things together. It was such a relief I didn’t have to worry about if I was going to get evicted or if I would be able to eat. Things turned around very quickly with the help of the Supportive Services for Veteran Families and Homeless Veterans’ Reintegration Programs.”
At the VRC James, worked with his case worker to navigate the Social Security system. After two years, James was approved for Supplemental Security Income.
Today, James is living in his own apartment and even had the opportunity to be a part of a special program in Chicago for the blind where he will live for a year and learn how to truly navigate the world as a blind person.
James looks back on his journey now with a new perspective. “For whatever reason I know I had to go through this journey. Maybe to remember what is important. For the longest time, I felt like I was one of those buoys in the middle of the ocean, dark and alone. I now have my first glimmers of light and hope.”