From invisible to role model

Turning homelessness experience into inspiration

The first time, homelessness was thrust on me. The second time, I became homeless by choice with a dream to inspire youth not to give up on life, their dreams and understand the value of a higher education. I tell them about what I’ve learned over the years—that mentors, education and a dream of a better tomorrow are pathways to success. Yet those lessons didn’t come easily.

For a while, my brother, sisters and I grew up in a household where my father was violent toward my mother. To keep outsiders from finding out about the troubles in our home, we were taught, “What happens at home, stays at home.” And in this type of situation as a child you lose your voice. Unfortunately, when my mom gained the courage to stop the cycle of domestic violence and leave, my family was forced into hiding.

I was 14 years old when I first became one of hundreds of homeless youth living in the streets of San Antonio, Texas. I kept under the radar to keep people from knowing I was different. But I was. While most kids were playing outside, I fluctuated between being a street kid and a couch surfer, constantly looking for food and shelter for my 2-year-old brother, Ray, and 9-year-old sister, Danielle. I found homes for them while I stayed on the streets or with whomever took me in for a few months. I quickly learned to be invisible to keep from disrupting those families’ lives. I became their maid, babysitter, gardener or cook. The moment I became a burden, I had to leave. I had not only lost my own family, but I lost myself and my dreams in the process.

A free meal ... and inspiration

Roy Juarez Jr.
Roy Juarez Jr.

When I was 16, I walked into the Omni Hotel in Dallas to find a free meal and came across an event for the Federally Employed Women’s Training Program. I found myself in the awards dinner and sat in the back while motivational speaker Lt. Col. Consuelo Castillo Kickbusch, addressed the audience. Her words gave me the hope and strength I needed to dream again. They inspired me to keep trying. I didn’t meet her then. Instead, I grabbed her business card and left with a new drive.

I made my way back to San Antonio to my best friend’s aunt’s house. Ms. Carmen was caring for my baby brother Ray. I picked him up and took him to the pastor of the church, we had once attended. My goal was to make a deal and have Pastor Doris let us live in her church and in exchange I would clean it so it would be ready for all her services. I planned to raise my little brother and make sure he attended school. But Pastor Doris wouldn’t let us live in her church. Rather she allowed us to live with her as long as I returned to high school. I enrolled as a third-year freshman at Southwest High School in San Antonio.

High school is difficult when you’re a typical student with a mom and dad and a home you call your own. Growing up on the streets had altered my view of life. I recall at lunch one day hearing a girl complain because her mom made her clean her room and wouldn’t let her go out. I couldn’t stand it, I turned around and said, “Do you know how lucky you are? At least you have a mom.”

Luckily I found amazing teachers who kept me emotionally stable. There were times when I spent my lunch in Ms. Barrera’s room crying and trying to figure out why my parents hated me, what was wrong with me. She always had the words to comfort me.

Then, three months before my 20th birthday, I graduated; and with encouragement from my educators, I enrolled at Northwest Vista Community College in San Antonio.

Thanks to education, a limitless world opened up and taught me that no one could steal my dreams. Education gave me the grit or ganas (desire) needed to find myself again.

From victim to role model
Eventually, I did meet the woman who encouraged me to change my life. Debi Gaitan, vice president for Student Success at Northwest Vista, asked me to introduce a guest speaker at the school. To my surprise, it was retired Lt. Col. Kickbusch. The same woman I had heard seven years prior. No one knew my story and that day I stood in front of all of my educators, classmates and friends and introduced Col. Kickbusch as a woman who gave me a second chance at life without even knowing it.

She taught me not to live my life as a victim or as a survivor but take it one step further and become a role model. After Northwest, I followed her footsteps to Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas, where I worked toward a degree in business and began building my life around my dream of inspiring youth and reuniting families across America. As a freshman, I founded America’s Business Leaders, which provides powerful keynote speakers, mentoring, workshops and parent and youth development programs.

Once I graduated, I accepted a position with my mentor in Las Vegas. But three months later, she let me go. I was confused. I thought I was doing well.

“What did I do?” I asked Col. Kickbusch. “Can I fix it?”

“You don’t get it, do you?” she replied. “You aren’t meant to work for me. You have three months to save money and go do what you were meant to do, but that isn’t working for me.”

Back on the streets
I won the battle to leave the streets only to return to them to share my story. A lot of you may be wondering: Why would he go back to being homeless? The truth is—I had a huge desire to give back to society in honor of every person who had taken me in, fed me and put clothes on my back. Besides, if there was anyone who could talk to people about what it was like and never giving up on your dream, it was me. Plus, being homeless again was a way to draw attention to my story.

Three months after our talk, I got in my 2001 Ford Mustang and began the Homeless by Choice tour. For 2 ½ years I drove around the country sharing my story of hope, perseverance and the power of education with youth, parents and educators—more than 100,000 people.

While I was living my dream and breaking through my own barriers, living homeless again was going to be difficult. What I didn’t plan on was my friend crashing my car two weeks before the start of my Homeless by Choice tour. I used every penny I saved to fix my car in order to start the tour. I sold what I could to buy gas and stored everything else in a friend’s garage. I began borrowing money that I would pay back as I received donations. Then my brother Ray, who was just a baby when we first became homeless, had started sending me money.

I called and asked, “Ray, where are you getting all of this money?” He said, “I know you need money for your tour so I made bracelets that say ‘Never Give up’ and I’ve been selling them to my friends to keep your tour alive.”

My brother had become an entrepreneur. My heart was so moved. I asked if I could sell them at the schools I visited and he agreed. For $3 each, I would sell anywhere from $500-$1500 in bracelets during school lunches. He saved the tour.

Coming together
Dreams of helping reunite families also included my own family but I had a lot of healing to do first. My education helped me understand my parents and their actions. My mother was broken, but she was my mother and I love her. Eventually, I began having candid conversations with my brother and sisters about forgiveness that turned into a round table discussion about our personal strengths and shortcomings.

And then one morning, I realized I could be the change I wanted to see in her. So I left a rose and a note on the hood of her car. When she found it, she called crying, “How could you love me? After everything I’ve done to you ... You love me?”

That was the turning point of strengthening our new relationship. My siblings and I have all learned to forgive, even our father.

Now as a speaker in the Ford Driving Dreams program, I take what I learned as a homeless teen-turned-college graduate and use my experiences to motivate young people to forgive, to chase their dreams and be the change they wish to see.

Main Photo: Roy Juarez Jr., shares his story during the Ford Driving Dreams program at James Lick High School in San Jose, Cali., October 2016. File photo.


Samantha Blackwell - 2:21pm • August 9, 2016

A truly amazing heartfelt story. I met Roy through my family and at one point we both lived at my grandmas house. He was unique , funny, and had become part of our family. Roy was also my youth pastor, til this day I still think of what would Roy say when I'm facing a tough situation. He is a great man and has helped touch the lives of many. I'm so proud of him and happy he is doing what he loves. What a blessing to be able to share his story with the world and make a positive impact on so many.

Nancy Rios - 2:48pm • August 9, 2016

Roy's story is amazing. I was blessed to have the opportunity to meet him years back. He came to share his story at my children's school. My children were so moved by his story they were amazed by all he had overcome.

Jeanette - 4:14pm • August 10, 2016

I have known Roy for many years, and can truly call him a friend. I know if there were any circumstance I would be up against or struggle in life, he would take time for me to help lead me and my family in the best path. He has always been heartwarming and kind... He has done amazing, humbling work over the years that truely shows his heart.

Omar - 2:26pm • August 9, 2016

Such a beautiful story. Roy is a huge inspiration to all of us, specially the young youth.

Mireya - 2:39pm • August 9, 2016

I have had the privilege of meeting and knowing Roy. He is the absolute example of selfless leadership. He's meant to do great things and I'm so happy that others get to hear his story!

Isaac - 2:42pm • August 9, 2016

Roy is a role model to so many individuals around the world. His ability to connect with people is amazing. His emotion behind his words are real. Keep it up Roy!

Tony Waters - 2:45pm • August 9, 2016

Roy is so amazing. I met him in 2012 at the GA Coalition to End Homelessness Conference as he was a keynote speaker. He embodied the work that I was doing and was such an inspiration to continue on making a difference. He is a fine young man with a special gift of reaching youth with the message of hope, acceptance and aspirations. I am honored to know him and look forward to following him on Facebook and knowing he is keeping up the journey he began. Also, he is a huge fan of GA Sweet Tea, especially Sonoraville High School.

Tammy - 2:49pm • August 9, 2016

You do amazing work with our youth. I'm trying to get you to visit my daughter's high school in San Antonio this school year. They need to hear your story and need your motivation! Keep up the good work!!

Virgie Ornelas - 2:49pm • August 9, 2016

I met Roy through Facebook as he was doing his "Homeless by Choice" tour and he was couch surfing and sleeping in his car! I offered my home to him, I offered him a spare bedroom but he turned it down and asked for the couch. He is very funny and overall an amazing young man. I love Rou and he is part of my family now. He has inspired many and has been the CHANGE by making a difference. I am so proud of him and will always be here to support him!!

Natalie Scott - 3:09pm • August 9, 2016

Had the pleasure of having Roy speak to our inner city 11th and 12th grade students in Youngstown, Ohio in 2011 and 2013. His story is their story and many of our students are repeating 9th graders graduating at the age of 19 or 20. The students were and are able to relate to his pain, hurt, anger, anxiety, lonliness - yet he is an example that he did not let the obstacles define his journey or success. He is a captivating and profound speaker for all to hear.

Emmanuel Gaitan - 3:09pm • August 9, 2016

I've learned that I may not understand what someone is going through and therefore I should not judge solely on appearance. Everyone has the opportunity to change the lives of others, for the good or bad. It is such a positive example that you are showing to kids who may be in similar situations. I'm sure your words will resonate in the hearts of the many people you are touching. Congratulations on the journey you are traveling! Continue you labor of goodness!

Travis Craver - 3:16pm • August 9, 2016

I have had the privilege of going to school with Roy and hearing him speak his incredible message of hope. He's living proof of an American dream that can be realized when you trust in Christ and never give up especially when giving up would be easier. He shows how what's easiest isn't what's best. He's a true inspiration.

Tiffany - 3:20pm • August 9, 2016

As a mother, Roy's story has always tugged at my heart strings. To hear his pain his struggles as a youth, is a burden no child should bear. To see him now and what a roll model he has became for these youth, is quite inspirational. His courage, determination, and unfaltering energy to better himself and others. To be an example of hope to those who do not necessarily have it! I needed to hear Roy's story today. I needed to hear his story about forgiveness. I think everyone should hear his story!

Angus Alvarez - 2:40am • August 11, 2016

I have known Roy for 11 years and he is a true inspiration! Roy continues to grow as a man and as a community activist! I am thankful to have meet and know Roy Juarez Jr! He is a true creative and sincere person! I wish you well on your continued journey my friend!

Steven Jimenez - 5:57pm • August 9, 2016

Your story never gets old. Each time I hear it or read it, I am filled with the strength and motivation to move on. You help me remember to spread the love and to always forgive. Thank you.

Sue - 7:00pm • August 9, 2016

A truly amazing individual who inspires me always! Roy's story love and forgiveness and then paying it forward is amazing. And the tie to Federally Employed Women is awesome also! He's been to Indiana to speak at my agency, within local schools and communities. I for one have been blessed and touched by Mr. Juarez.

David Delgadillo - 7:10pm • August 9, 2016

I met Roy on my sophomore year of High school, his story spoke to my soul, especially since I've been through similar experiences in my life and since then I try to do as he does to "be the change". Live to serve one another, his story needs to get across. Keep the good work! And thank you.

Rebekah Schur - 8:13pm • August 9, 2016

Roy is an amazing man and an inspiration to many. I had the privilege of having him come visit the middle school where I work. He shared his heartfelt story to our students and truly was able to connect with so many of them. We were lucky to be able to invite Roy back to work with some of our most troubled students. He did a one day mentoring program with them. They were reluctant to open up at first, but by the end of our time he had reached deep down within them. Several were crying at times and releasing they're own sadness. Roy comforted them and talked about forgiveness and inner strength. When our mentoring day was complete those students still held onto his every word. In fact most of our student body held onto what he said. They have asked for him to come back. Several of them text, message, or tweet Roy asking for guidance and support. I'm so lucky to have met him and am inspired to improve my school and our students even more because of him. If you haven't talked with him or have had the chance to hear him speak, you truly need you. He has so much to offer our youth!!!

Joseph Rogers - 9:39pm • August 9, 2016

I heard Roy several years ago when I attended Central Catholic and his message stuck with me all these years later. He is an inspiration for youth to overcome seemingly impossible obstacles and achieve dreams.

John Lewis - 1:50am • August 10, 2016

Roy is truly an inspiration. The first time I met him and heard his story was as he crashed on my couch during his first homeless by choice tour. It was an honor to host him and I am looking forward to him sharing his story at my sons school later this year. Thanks Roy for your story and servant attitude toward others!

Veronica Ramos - 3:43am • August 10, 2016

I had the pleasure of hearing Roy speak at local event and I have never been so moved and inspired. I knew I had to meet him and have him do work with the students I serve. He did come and speak and we made amazing changes in our community and with our kids. I very proud to know Roy and always remember him when I'm struggling with many of life's obstacles. Roy has taught me to be compassionate, empathetic, kind, patient and forgiving. We never know what others are caring with them and as an educator I am here to serve our youth. Because of Roy, I am a better educator, sister, daughter, aunt, friend and woman! Thank you, Roy for taking your pain and making the conscious decision every day to tell your story in hopes of making the world a better place. You are doing amazing work and I applaud you. Continue to inspire and be inspired.

Bryant Jones - 12:59pm • August 10, 2016

I met Roy about 10 yrs ago at a bar in the San Antonio area. I knew nothing of him or his situation. I found his kindness and charisma refreshing. After a few more drinks I felt drawn back and judgemental. I don't recall engaging many more conversations with him some how over the years me and Roy would run into each other in random places. With the help of social media I was able to witness his growth and inspiration. Without one conversation over the phone I have managed to know Roy's entire story. 3 weeks ago me and Roy met up while he was visiting San Antonio. Just being in his presence and speaking with him had been a blessing. He is the epitome of a Leader and motivator. Needless to say never judge a book by its cover, or even a chapter that you walk in on. He is simply amazing

Eduardo Sanchez - 1:07pm • August 10, 2016

I've had the pleasure of meeting Roy and break bread with him at the United States Hispanic Leadership Insituite and seeing how happy he is as a person after all he went through brings hope to my heart that I could be the same way. I've had similar experiences to what Roy had underwent as a child and I could never find myself to forgive those that hurt me. However, Roy changed my mindset and outlook and with his guidance, I've been able to forgive and by doing so, I've been able to see everything in a more positive matter. You have inspired me to be different, and I don't want this movement to stop. We need people like you to change the paradigm of our generations youth and to show that nothing is impossible and everything can be achieved with just the right mindset. Thank you for everything Roy and I can't wait for the day that we cross paths again.

Emmanuel - 1:55pm • August 10, 2016

I've yet to meet a more passionate and crowd moving person than Roy. I've gone to many national conferences and have heard many motivational stories. However, none of the stories have struck me as deeply and have made me reflect on my journey as Roy's story. I've never been homeless, nor have I ever had to endure the extreme conditions that Roy did. However, Roy's story allowed me to reflect on my journey and allowed me to see how blessed I am to be were I am. I've heard his story three times now, and he has had the same affect on me every single time. He fills me up with motivation and energy, the feeling is like no other. I've seen him tell his story at a national conference, a community college, and at my university. It doesn't matter if there's one person in the room or thousands, he tells his story with the same passion and energy as if he's reliving his past in third person. His words are powerful. I am grateful for his story because it caused me to reflect and ultimately made me the person I am proud of being today.

Jennifer Martinez - 1:57pm • August 10, 2016

Roy is a great example of perseverance. His story has many lessons of love, life, forgiveness and strength; all qualities that he possesses and exudes in his life and his work. The authenticity and passion that transcends when Roy tells his story is truly moving. As a single mother, raising a son, I am grateful for Roy's friendship and the hope that he inspires within me for my son's future. He truly is a role model for our youth and a living testimony of how a person really can "do anything you set your mind to".

Lisa, FBW editor - 2:04pm • August 10, 2016

Inspiring to read all these thoughtful comments, so often it's not known how far influence reaches or impact is made. You're encouraged to join the conversations with the other stories. It's always helpful to know where to make improvements as well as to hear praise!

Goy Rabago - 2:09pm • August 10, 2016

I first met Roy at Southwest High School where we met in an after school program. He had just been taken in by ministers who encouraged him to graduate high school. What I think we bonded over was the fact that we had both been abandoned by our mothers after life had dealt them devastating blows. From the time we met, I saw Roy's leadership shine and we have been friends and peer mentors for 18 years now. I had heard him tell stories for years about his experiences at a homeless teenager. But it wasn't until about 6 years that he invited me to hear him speak at a local high school that experienced the powerful IMPACT of his message. As soon as I saw students and educators react to his story, many of them in tears, I knew I had to be involved. We have worked together over the years, both of us with a passion. I have now been working with him full time for 2 years and have seen his leadership grow. His message is one that needs to be heard by communities everywhere.

Kimberly - 4:28pm • August 10, 2016

Roy is an amazing person! I had the privilege of being his trainer for a while. While I was helping to improve him on the outside he was working on me on the inside. His in sight into business and promoting myself made me realize how small scale my thinking was. He's a wonderful loving person with an awesome story. No matter how far away we are from each other or how much time has gone by he'll always be in my heart and mind.

Reynaldo Martin... - 8:15am • August 11, 2016

Such an inspiring story for people to hear. Roy, keep changing lives.

Alli Dean - 9:59am • August 13, 2016

I've heard Roy speak twice now and his story hits me every time. He is an inspiration to the students that I work with and they can relate to what he has been through. It makes them feel like they aren't alone in their struggles, which is so important. Roy is a great speaker and his message will stick with you!

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