This month marks three years since Richard Barber moved into Samaritan House, an affordable housing nonprofit in Fort Worth, Texas, that provides apartments and homes to people living with HIV and AIDS, as well as those recovering from addiction and homelessness.
Richard, who is now a board member at Samaritan House, knows the experience of all three. He is HIV-positive and survived decades of addiction and homelessness.
“I took a nosedive and went spiraling out of control for about 20 years,” Richard says. “I’ve slept under bridges, in tents. Before I came to Samaritan House, I’d just gotten out of rehab in Dallas. But I came back and hit the ground running.”
Richard is diligent in maintaining his sobriety. Before the pandemic, he woke up early twice a week, leaving his apartment by 6:30 to take a train to Dallas, where he met with his sponsor over breakfast. He attended multiple Bible study and 12-step meetings each week, and he enrolled in school.
At the age of 48, he’s studying to become a substance abuse counselor, and hoping his grades will allow him to transfer from Tarrant County Community College to UT Arlington in 2021.
“The main reason I want to go back to school is so that I will be better equipped to help other people who are going through the struggles that I’ve already been through,” Richard says. “It’s not even about the money. It’s about paying it forward to so many people. I had this whole tribe of people trying to help me get to where I’m at today.”
When the pandemic prompted shelter-in-place orders, Richard’s routine, like so many others’, shifted dramatically. His five classes moved online, along with recovery meetings and therapy sessions. It was a big adjustment, but Richard knew he could take on more.
When Samaritan House closed its dining room, he offered to fill in as a volunteer for the kitchen manager because he knew she needed more protection from the virus. He volunteered five or six hours a day, getting up at 4:00 am seven days a week, while keeping up with the rest of his commitments.
“Starting on Fridays, I would come into the kitchen in the morning and help them set up. I would sweep and mop the floors at night, and help them set up the front.” Richard also took charge of meal-planning, preparation, and delivery of breakfast, lunch, and dinner to about 40 of his neighbors in the apartment building.
“I did this as payback for what they’ve done for me, and to show others that a little service work won’t kill us.”
Service is something that’s heavily emphasized in 12-step programs. It’s one way those in recovery can connect with others, gain a sense of purpose, and reach beyond one’s own experience. Like every other aspect of Richard’s recovery, he embraces this ideal whole-heartedly.
“I choose to be of service. I choose to wake up in the morning knowing that what I’m doing does matter,” Richard says. “It shows that even though all of this is going on, I am still human and I need the exact same thing you need, which is love. And I do everything with love. I cook with love. I pray while I’m cooking.”
Richard continued to volunteer full-time for six weeks after the dining room closed. “It did get trying, it did,” he says. “At about the third week, I was done. I was tired. But I didn’t let that stop me. I still got up and gave what I needed to. In that respect, I really am grateful for my parents because I know how hard they work, and I know their work ethic. I have the same one. I believe whatever you’re doing, do it well.”
When the kitchen manager was able to return to work in April, Richard scaled back his hours and threw himself into his studies. “For the next week and a half, it was just school work only. I would get up at 2:00 in the morning and go for about 12 hours, just studying and writing papers.”
His hard work paid off, and Richard earned four As and one C — and “Cs transfer to UT Arlington,” he says, bursting into a joyous laugh that often erupts mid-sentence. A few weeks after receiving his grades, Richard also learned he’d made the Dean’s List.
“I never saw it coming,” he says. “I never even really thought about it. But when I opened the email, it was like 11:45 in the evening, and I was laying in bed, playing on my phone like everybody else. I saw that email, and I was like wow, you know, I really worked my butt off for that.”
Richard says he’s paying attention to what’s happening across the country — the growing strength of the Black Lives Matter movement, ongoing protests in dozens of cities, and the announcement of new reforms for police departments. After living through the upheaval of the coronavirus, these changes feel powerful as well, Richard says.
“God’s trying to tell us something, and I’m not sure today what it is,” he says, “but I know he’s trying to tell us something. As a collective, I hope we figure it out and do what he needs us to do.”
Like any other day, Richard is thankful, more than anything, that he’s going through this unpredictable and challenging experience sober.
“If I was still trapped in my old mindset, nothing would be possible now. We would not be having this conversation,” he says. “I would not have a roof over my head. I would have nothing. I probably wouldn’t be alive. But, you know, today is a beautiful day. The weather is perfect, the birds are chirping. I’m so content and so happy with where I am today. I haven’t had that peace in so long, but I have it today.”