Adding it up for the better

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

My name is Robert. On April 17, 2007, I gave up drugs, alcohol, and hopelessness. I began to take control of my life. The process hasn’t been easy, and there has been failure along the way, but one of the biggest lessons I learned while working with Central City Concern, is that you must keep moving forward. Central City Concern helped me discover the curiosity of a boy again, and that’s how I uncovered my true calling—I am a teacher.

As a child, I was in the foster care system, bouncing from Portland to Colorado to California to Kansas City and back. I was in and out of my mother’s house, my grandmother’s house, and a lot of unsafe places along the way. Every time I thought I could settle in, I was uprooted again. No foundation. No consistency. No stability. I was never in one place long enough to call it home.

During my teenage years I finally landed back at my mother’s house permanently. She fed me. She clothed me. She told me to go to school. But there was no nurturing. There was no encouragement or positive modeling behavior. Mom was tormented by her own issues, and I was on my own.

While at school, I detached. I struggled in and out of the classroom, unable to find anywhere to fit in. I began to use drugs and my habit quickly escalated into addiction. Drugs were an addition to the facade I’d been presenting for years. I was always trying to be someone else . . . someone who I thought was more interesting and entertaining. I became a people pleaser. I became the guy who made everyone else feel at ease. But I could never feel at ease, myself. Addiction and homelessness ruled my life for the next 20 years.

The only constant over that time was my grandmother. She was always there for me no matter what. For a period, when I was deep in my addiction, I was staying at her house. She was patient, but constantly reminded me: “Boy, you know you’re better.” Those words haunted me, and ultimately motivated me to seek help from Central City Concern. Her belief in me continues to be an inspiration to this day.

My transformation started in 2007, when Central City Concern set me up in one of their downtown apartments. I’d been sleeping behind dumpsters and couch-surfing until I was handed those keys.

”I uncovered my true calling – I am a teacher.”

Housing was the pivotal piece to me staying clean and sober. Just knowing that I would be able to go into my own apartment and lock the door behind me made all the difference.

I felt safe. I finally had a place to call home. I started to trust people, and with the help of many, I gained confidence in myself. I was able to engage in recovery meetings in my building, and was supported by on-site treatment counselors. I stayed in CCC housing for just over three years, which gave me the time and space to improve my life.

Central City Concern’s Employment Access Center (EAC) offered the support I needed to pursue an education, and a career. I worked one-on-one with an employment specialist. There were job readiness classes, mock interviews, and I learned about the importance of first impressions and being professional. The EAC staff gave me clothes for job interviews and everybody there played an important role in my success.

My employment specialist helped me get a job working in construction, but I was laid off during the recession in 2009. I kept moving forward though, and at the urging of my employment specialist, I enrolled in Portland Community College (PCC). While in school, an instructor encouraged me to push myself in the field of mathematics. I took his advice, and a few years later, graduated near the top of my class.

Today I work as a math tutor at Portland Community College. Being in that role has helped me learn how to be of service to others—how to work with people to find different ways to solve problems.

”I have a purpose... a passion... perspective.”

Along with tutoring at PCC, I’m doing a practicum at a Portland middle school. My goal is to be a full-time middle school math teacher—that’s where I can make the biggest difference. Middle school was when I stopped understanding math, and lost interest in school. Those kids remind me a lot of myself when I was that age. They’re trying to fit in, and at the same time they’re trying to blend into the background. I see a lot of masks. Math is a barrier for many kids and I want to help them get through that. I want to help them shed the masks early in life, and move forward to fulfill their potential.

I will graduate from Portland State University next year, and then pursue my Master’s in education. I have a love for serving others by teaching them how to be comfortable with numbers. Eleven years ago, Central City Concern gave me stability, and the opportunity to identify that love.

I’ve grown. I’m outgoing. I care about others, and I don’t hide the real me anymore. My grandmother was right, and Central City Concern helped me to see that. I will forever be grateful.