Too young to give up hope

By: Danni Eickenhorst, Midland Division, Content Specialist

During the course of a 20-minute interview, John Holt answers the telephone at The Salvation Army’s Alton homeless shelter five times, each time having to turn away potential residents. “I’m sorry,” he said, “We’re full right now, but if you call back tomorrow, I’ll let you know if anything opens up.” Each time he hangs up the phone, John seems genuinely sorrowful and full of regret that he can’t do more for the individual on the other end of the line reaching out to him.

John has a unique perspective on homelessness. Four years ago, John moved into The Salvation Army shelter in Alton shortly after his release from Menard Correctional Center in Menard, Illinois. He arrived at the prison with nowhere else to go. “I’d broken into cars when I was a teenager and had three felonies by the time I was 17,” he recalls, “It was actually a blessing to get caught when I did, because I was paroled at 20 and still had time to start my life over and turn it around.”

It was at The Salvation Army shelter that John got his new start on life. Within the first weeks of moving in, John had already secured employment at the local McDonalds and became determined to pursue an education. Within 2 months, John moved out into an apartment with a co-worker.

Shortly after moving out on his own, John suffered a seizure. He was taken to the hospital, where he learned that he had a brain tumor that was cancerous. What followed was a nearly two-year battle with the disease. As he endured treatments and surgeries, he also reconnected with his family, and was able to have the support he needed to recover, and today he is cancer-free.

“It didn’t take the cancer to reunite us, necessarily, but it has been nice having them there when I need them,” he says, as he fiddles with a bracelet on his wrists that reads “Too Young for this Cancer,” an ode to an organization that helped him navigate the sometimes overwhelming world of cancer treatment.

Even as he underwent sometimes debilitating treatments, John continued working and has been working as a part-time monitor at The Salvation Army’s homeless shelter for over a year. “I love working here, because I understand what it is to be homeless. I’ve slept in the streets. I understand what they’re going through, more than most. In this position, I can connect people with the resources they need and do what I can to help out.”

Looking forward, the future seems to hold an abundance of possibilities, no small miracle for such a young man with such a tumultuous past. John attends Lewis and Clark College, with the aim of pursuing a career in radio. He hosts a radio show on the local college radio station three days each week. His backup plan? “I would like to pursue a career in social work, maybe work with the homeless that have severe mental disorders. Everywhere you walk, you see homeless people and they all deserve the chance to start over. I’d like to be a part of that.”

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