From homeless to college bound, Columbus man’s story is one of redemption

It seems nearly incredible that someone who was homeless, jobless and nearly penniless two and a half years ago now sits in a building called Sans Souci — French for “without worry” — with the smile of a lottery winner.

But 37-year-old Columbus native Nathan Wilson hit a different jackpot — one overflowing with people concerned for the downtrodden and struggling who are stretching out a hand of help and hope. That lifeline appeared when he landed at what he described as rock bottom.

It’s called United Way of Bartholomew County.

“You have to learn to let go of your pride when you hit a really low point,” Wilson said.

He slept in his 2001 Dodge Caravan, with 210,000 miles on the odometer, the night before he called United Way 2-1-1 South Central Indiana to request help with clothes. And now he can afford to grin a bit these days.

Wilson got a job at the Sans Souci discount clothing-and-housewares store and worked his way up, eventually progressing to operations manager, the No. 2 post. He has become something of a poster boy for United Way’s program to boost local residents’ financial stability.

And now Wilson recently enrolled at Ivy Tech Community College for online classes for either the summer or fall so he eventually can pursue a career in human resource management. His success story, partly relayed at United Way’s recent annual meeting in front of an estimated 300 people, earned him a standing ovation. That left him with overflowing emotion.

“I wanted to step to the microphone and say something,” he said later. “But I was in tears.”

That spoke volumes about how far he has come.

As far back as 2008, a recurring battle with pancreatitis affected his work at two manufacturing jobs. Whenever the illness severely flared up, he would miss several days of work in a row, often enough that he eventually would deplete his paid time off and finally lose his job.

Or he would miss days in his first 90 days, when there was little leeway for frequent absences.

Lost jobs translated to lost insurance, which led to more serious medical problems, a loss of an apartment, and a tougher hurdle to find new work.

“A couple of times,” Wilson said, “I ended up in the hospital for a week. Looking back, I think a lot of my health issues came from depression.”

So he was linked with Centerstone, the local nonprofit mental health provider, to help with that obstacle. Also, Thrive Alliance assisted, along with Columbus Regional Health and Cathy King, United Way financial stability coordinator and the drug manufacturer, to get him a medicine costing thousands of dollars every few months for a problem with psoriasis.

“I just want people to know that, no matter how bad a situation is, there are people who can help in this community,” Wilson said.

United Way President Mark Stewart has led a local charge the past several years to help county residents improve their financial lot in life. Stewart acknowledged that local nonprofits had to work closely with Wilson to make sure every time he took a step forward and saw success such as a pay increase, he subsequently did not lose various assistance benefits.

“When people like Nathan are working hard and doing their part to achieve self-sufficiency,” Stewart said, “it is our job as a community to make sure we are doing everything we can to remove the barriers to their success.”

Sheryl Adams, Sans Souci’s executive director, has lauded Wilson for allowing people to connect him to various agencies and organizations for help. For instance, when he confessed that he allowed dozens of medical bills to go unpaid, Adams herself, known literally to her employees as a mom figure, came alongside him to file through them and resolve them.

When he needed help with health insurance, he was connected with Premium Link, a program that temporarily is paying his reduced-cost $200-per-month premiums. When he talked of one day enrolling in college classes, he was linked with McDowell Education Center, which arranged for him to earn his high school equivalency diploma right at Sans Souci — and be paid by his employer even as he studied in class.

A program called Family Self Sufficiency helped him find an apartment and reconnect with his 12-year-old son, Nathaniel Wilson, stayed with local relatives when Nathan was homeless. Literally, nonprofit and other agencies united to help the Columbus resident, just as they say they aim to do.

“A key is that if people don’t tell us their specific problems, we can’t really help them,” Adams said.

Yet, when Wilson went to Sans Souci for clothes, he asked about work — and got hired for an entry-level position. Step by step, he earned two promotions and a chance at a restored life. He largely credits Adams for giving him confidence to rebuild his life.

“At that time (two years ago), I had no faith in myself at all,” he said.

When Wilson thinks back to his three months of chilly nights spent in his van, and the phone call to United Way 2-1-1 that triggered a chain reaction of change, he scarcely can believe how far he has come.

“I just hope,” Wilson said, “that people will see there is a lot of support here in our community if you really want help.”