After nearly 20 years of drug and alcohol abuse, Orlando Ward hit rock bottom.
He'd lost his job, and family members stopped answering the phone when he called for money. He was in and out of jail, and in 1998 he reached his lowest point when he found himself homeless on skid row in downtown Los Angeles.
"I use to drive by skid row and wonder how people could live that way," Ward says. "It was craziness, insanity. I had no idea that 20 years later, I would be one of those people."
No one would have predicted Ward's downfall. As a teenager in the late '70s, he was named Orange County's basketball player of the year. He was recruited by hundreds of colleges, and chose Stanford University. But his budding basketball career was cut short when he suffered a devastating knee injury his sophomore year.
"That put me on a different trajectory in life," Ward says. "There was a period of loneliness and isolation that I think made me make decisions that I wouldn't have made in the past."
One of those decisions was trying cocaine for the first time at a party his sophomore year. His drug and alcohol use got worse after college. He lost his first job as a senior marketing representative for Xerox within 18 months. He tried rehab several times, but never got sober. The next 17 years he spiraled downward before landing on skid row.
"It was a dark time," Ward says of skid row. "When you are in that place, children and people look at you like you are a monster, that you are less than human. I watched people I cared about overdose right in front of me."
In 1999, Ward had seen enough and entered Midnight Mission, an outreach program that offers services to the homeless as well as drug and alcohol rehabilitation. He flourished at Midnight Mission, so much so, that within 10 years he was named the organization's Vice President of Operations – the highest position ever held by anyone from the streets.
Now, at age 51, Ward is the Director of Community Affairs at Volunteers of America Greater Los Angeles, a human services organization that helps nearly 30,000 people per year. We asked him a few questions about his transition from the streets to the boardroom.
- You were homeless for about two years, what was the turning point?
- The miracle of that situation was once I decided to stop fighting and realize I would be on the streets forever is actually when I started listening to those voices of support. I entered into the Midnight Mission April 18, 1999.
- At Midnight Mission, you not only got your life together but you also worked your way to the top. How did that happen?
- It took me about two years to clean up the mess that I had made of my life. As I was looking for jobs, opportunities became apparent within the organization. I began in development and really started to learn a lot about myself and the issues of addiction, poverty and homelessness. I recognized this is where I needed to be; helping others brought me satisfaction. I began to live my life as I do now, putting one foot in front of the other. Opportunities to be helpful, to be purposeful presented themselves and I didn't refuse them.
- Because you were homeless does that make you more effective in reaching others who are in a similar situation?
- It's important for me to demonstrate to people through my actions, through my presentation, that change can happen. To really help people in need, you have to be willing to walk where they walk, see what they see, and feel what they feel. If you can't do that, you're not going to be as effective as you could be. When I encounter people I've met in the last 15 years that are still struggling, by just being there for them and letting them know that it doesn't have to stay that way, it's probably the framework in which the help or assistance comes.
- You now work for Volunteers of America Greater Los Angeles; why did you leave Midnight Mission?
- What was attractive to me is the big emphasis on prevention. As I look at homelessness, addiction and our prison populations I think it can all be traced back to some basic fundamentals, our economic and education systems. I now am able to have an impact throughout a person's entire life. What I learned at the Midnight Mission about myself, the industry and the world leverages very well with what I have to do now with this organization. It made perfect sense to move in this direction.
- After nearly two decades of struggling, you landed on your feet. Would you change anything if you could go back and do it all over again?
- I suppose the right answer is I wouldn't change anything, and I'm right where I'm supposed to be. If there was an easier way to get where I am today, absolutely I would take it. But at the end of the day, I probably would not be as effective, impassioned or committed if I hadn't gone through it. I had to do what I had to do to get where I am.