Learning from the Former, Living for the Future.

When Michael Wilson opens a notebook of his cooking accomplishments, his eyes brighten and he grows animated. Visibly in his element, he shows off photos of his favorite recipes from culinary school. The change in topic is clearly a relief for him after recounting the troubled history that led him to Volunteers of America Southwest’s Hawley Veterans Services Center.

“I was broken when I got here,” he tells Giving Back Magazine. “I was really hurt, just torn to pieces.” Michael Wilson arrived at Hawley in November 2016, shortly after being released from prison. His sentence was the last stop on a long journey through misery that began in his twenties. “My mom told me, ‘You can stay here if you get a job or join the military,’ so I did both,” Mike says. He served two years in the U.S. Navy Reserves then transferred to the Army. After two years in the Army, Mike felt like he was standing still. He believed that his hard work was not being recognized or rewarded, and fell into a deep depression. Emotionally spiraling, Mike attempted suicide and, at the last moment, a farewell call to a friend saved his life. He was given an Honorable Discharge from the military.

Mike made the best of his release from the Armed Forces and earned his Associate and Bachelor of Science in Culinary Management. He began living a life he enjoyed. But old habits die hard and, a couple of missteps later, Mike found himself being released from prison with a referral to Hawley Veterans Services Center. According to Mike, it was a perfect fit immediately. “I felt so much joy in my spirit when I got here,” he says. “I knew I was in the right place.”

It has been six months since Mike arrived at Hawley, where he has found the space and time he needs to heal and grow. He has quit smoking, begun running and lifting weights, and is eating well. “Why not try to live your healthiest life?” he asks. He takes his responsibilities at Hawley seriously, and has earned the privilege of having his own room as a result of his efforts. “I attribute a lot of my habits to the military,” he says, gesturing to his immaculately tidy room. He proudly displays his diplomas on the wall, and across the room hangs a letter attesting to his remarkable volunteer work with a local nonprofit.

Now, Mike dedicates a lot of time to forming positive relationships with those around him. He is back in the kitchen, working as a line cook at a local restaurant. Mike knows that his skills and experience might merit a higher position, but he understands that he has to work his way back up the ladder. “I treat everyone around me like they’re my boss, like I can learn from them,” he says. He takes a similar respectful approach to his peers at Hawley, and has become the resident barber.

When asked what the future holds, Mike explains that he has personal and professional goals, but he knows that he needs to accomplish them at his own pace. He wants to take full advantage of the opportunities that Hawley Veterans Services Center provides, so he plans to stay for eighteen months to two years. During that time, he will be able to continue improving his mental and physical health. Mike wants to make sure he will never need to start over again. He is taking the time he needs to make a full turnaround, and he is confident that Volunteers of America Southwest will be there to help him to realize his potential.