“Coming to Creston saved my life,” said Jonathan Graham, 36, of Nebraska, who has been stuck in town after a series of unfortunate events.
He said he hadn’t planned on staying in Creston for more than two days. He arrived to Creston in December 2019 to pick up a car that had been impounded. He brought just enough clothing to last the trip – a pair of sweat pants, two sweaters, a pair of socks, a change of underwear and the shoes on his feet. However, his car wouldn’t start to make the journey back to Nebraska.
He quickly met some people in town, including a cousin, Doug Brunell, who gave him a temporary place to stay. Brunell helped provide some side work, such as mowing lawns for a little extra cash, and helped Graham fill out job applications. He made a friend with whom he later moved in, but he said that man’s girlfriend kicked him out. Since March, Graham has spent most of his nights sleeping behind Gibson Memorial Library or in an abandoned house in Corning.
Today, with the help of a few people, Graham is said he’s in a stable place for the first time and he wanted to thank those who helped him – Brunell, Joe Powers, Clint Brown and Tony Rothmeyer of Crossroads Behavior Health, the few friends he has made and a young girl on a red bike, who discovered him sleeping behind the library.
Graham acknowledged that he’s not easy to live with. He said he’s been suffering from a “midlife crisis” for the past three years, which has sent him into a downward spiral.
“My mom died. My dad decided he was moving and told me on the day of my mom’s funeral. I had a falling out with my sister ... my brother ... my grandfather ... I was living in my car. I had a storage unit and I lost $13,000 worth of home furnishings. I was also a drug addict,” he said.
He said he started using drugs at the age of 15. While he has used since his arrival in Creston, he said he’s maintained his sobriety since December. Much of this he attributed to the help he has received and the friends he has made, who are also striving and struggling to live a life of sobriety and the fact he has been removed from the people in his former environment.
Graham said he suffers from a range of mental health disorders, too – post traumatic stress, obsessive-compulsive, social-anxiety disorders and depression. He’s overwhelmed and said he often feels like a burden to others who try to help him.
Life took an unexpected turn for Graham this year, which set him on a path of making more positive life decisions – he met Joe Powers.
Graham said he was pretty down and out when he had met a neighbor who told him about Powers, owner of Powers Funeral Home and Cremation Center. He said Powers had helped his neighbor following his incarceration and was told Powers might be able to help. Out of desperation, Graham made the call. He told Powers of his situation and Powers agreed to meet Graham at the library.
“He didn’t look down upon me. That was one thing about Joe. He never judged,” Graham said. “He’s an amazing guy. He’s amazing. He took money out of his own wallet so I could get something to eat.”
Graham said Powers assisted by providing rides to the Southern Prairie Family Fitness Center to use its showers. He gave him rides to Corning, where he stayed temporarily during storms. He helped him access his personal documents, which he had lost, such as his birth certificate and other documents to acquire an identification card. Powers allowed him to use the funeral home address for mail. But most importantly, Powers taught him how to set goals.
“He starts out with a note card every day and he wrote down things, things he wanted to accomplish,” said Graham. “He kind of got me in that habit with a notebook.”
Graham has a number of short and longer term goals. He hopes to someday have companionship and a child. As for now, he wants to complete the three classes needed to acquire his associates degree in business administration and find full-time, honest work as a handy man, a farm hand or a cable man.
“I’m amazing at laying cable. I was certified and trained,” he said.
He said he also has experience running his own decking business and working with cattle and horses. But his past often prevents him from gaining employment.
Graham said he went to prison for three and a half years for a number of misdemeanors. He settled for two and a half years in prison over four years in county jail. He ended up with a prolonged sentence for getting tattoos, he said.
In prison, Graham said he had a number of opportunities. He said he was an avid reader and discussed what he enjoyed about the Left Behind, Harry Potter and Eragon series. The experience allowed him to work in a woodshop and study criminal law and world religions – learning about Jehovah Witnesses, Judaism and Mormonism. Some religions he said he found interesting and others “a little weird.”
After he was released from prison in 2006, he traveled around. A chance encounter with a Buddhist monk in Knoxville, Tennessee, set him on a path to study the religion. While he still struggles with things that trigger him, he said studying Buddhism helps him become better every day and manage his anger.
“With Buddhism, it was just to reach a higher plane, a higher level of understanding,” he said of the appeal. “If your mind isn’t right, you’re not going to get there. If your body isn’t right, you’re not going to get there. It’s mind, body and soul all working together, coexisting, making your day better today than you did yesterday to reach that higher level of understanding. And you never stop learning.”
“My life has always been very unsteady,” said Graham.
Graham said as a child he suffered from physical abuse at the hands of a step-parent. His parents divorced when he was 10 years old and he and his two siblings were split between his parents and a foster parent. He was raised by his father, who worked as a truck driver and rarely at home.
“I’d see my dad on his days off, which were Thursday and Friday ... The only time I would see my dad was when he was getting home from work or getting me up for school. He was gone the rest of the time. I was by myself. I taught myself how to cook,” Graham said.
In 13 years, Graham said he attended 13 different schools before graduating high school in 2002. He said he never spent more than two years at any school, which made it difficult to form relationships or to be involved. He experienced episodes of homelessness throughout his youth, recalling a teacher taking him in during his freshman year of high school.
As he spent the majority of this year without a home, Graham had only one thing on his mind – survival.
“That’s all there was,” he said. “Survival.”
For Graham, it was easier being homeless in a metropolitan city such as Lincoln and Omaha, Detroit and Chicago, which have shelters and more services for homeless youth and adults, but in small town Iowa, not so much. Ironically, the crime and violence in his former areas of residence helped him develop survival skills.
“Survival is not getting stabbed, not getting shot, not getting beat up, not getting robbed. It’s doing what you got to do to keep yourself safe. I was doing the same thing, but instead it was about, instead of someone shooting me over a bad drug deal ... it was about just getting by,” he said.
While the services of metropolitan areas helped, Graham said he has never had much of a support system, until moving to Creston. It takes a village, indeed.
At the recommendation of Brunell, Graham sought the of services at Crossroads Behavioral Health. At Crossroads, Graham has been able to receive some counseling and he was also introduced to Clint Brown and Tony Rothmeyer.
Graham said, even though Brown wasn’t assigned to his case, he helped him find shelter at the Waubonsie Mental Health Center’s Hope Center in Clarinda until he could secure longer term housing.
Tony Rothmeyer, a peer support specialist who has endured equally challenging life experience, has also helped Graham address his own barriers by sharing knowledge of the resources and skills that helped him.
“Tony is amazing. He doesn’t criticize me. Both of these guys, they are amazing,” Graham said.
While local services designed to help people like Graham are appreciated, there was one person he was hoping to find and thank.
Girl on the red bike
Graham said it was sometime in June when a little girl – medium length blonde hair, approximately 5’4”, with glasses, riding a red bicycle – began dropping items off daily as he slept behind the library. He estimates she’s 10 or 11 years old.
“She was a godsend because at the time I had no food. I had nothing. I had nothing because I couldn’t carry it and I had no where to store anything, and she brought me stuff I could eat,” he said. “First thing she did was she left a Dr. Pepper and some change.”
But he hadn’t received it as someone else found it first. He only found out about it because she rode by to check if he had found it.
‘I told her, ‘No, but thanks,’” he said.
The next day she brought him a bag, chock-full of food – Minute meals, animal crackers, strawberry soda and a T-shirt. She continued to do it almost daily.
“One day I was sitting on the steps and she came around, I didn’t see her, but she hooked the bag on the railing and dipped down on her bike and took off before I had even realized what she had done. I was trying to catch her because she had brought me stuff the previous days,” he said.
He said he hopes to find her. When he does, he said he wants to buy her something to thank her.
“Like a Dairy Queen gift certificate so she can spoil herself,” he said. “But the thing is, I don’t think her parents knew it.”
Graham said he’d really like to meet her parents. If he could, he would tell them this:
“She amazing. I have multiple people pass me daily and I don’t get so much as a look,” he said.
He said she has a good heart and he has never encountered anyone like her.
“I just want to tell them what an amazing job they did raising her,” he said. “When no one noticed me, she did. She restored my faith in humanity.”