June 8, 2023

When you work at a large organization, you meet many people. Some good, some bad. Lots of folks would say that working in higher education is no different. But, I would argue that working at a community college is quite different.

It’s different because you slowly realize that folks like Joe Furr are all around you.

Joe’s an open book, and his warmth and smile come through, despite both of us wearing masks. His kind brown eyes shine, and you definitely get the feeling that this is a person you can talk to and be met with empathy and compassion.

It is no surprise when I learn that he is studying to become a counselor. Joe’s path to this point in his life has many twists and turns, though, and as I hear him talk, I can’t help but marvel at the man before me.

He starts off, speaking very matter-of-factly, by explaining that he’s from a small town near Charlotte, and that he started using marijuana at 13. By the time he was 16, he was using much more serious and addictive drugs. His grades plummeted and he went from being an A or B student to failing. He had what he calls “encounters” with law enforcement, and couldn’t hold down a job. Joe says that he barely managed to graduate high school.

Throughout his twenties, he used all kinds of drugs, including opiates. He continued to get arrested for minor offenses, spending small stints in jail. He wasn’t working. He didn’t have any meaningful relationships anymore.

By the time Joe was in his thirties, he was using intravenous drugs and was living on the street. He describes being arrested for possession of heroin in 2018 as his “rock bottom” and talks openly about stealing food so that he could eat. 

When charged and found guilty, he served his complete 6-month sentence, with about 1.5 months in prison. Amazingly – and I say this because our country’s incarceration system is so deeply flawed, especially when you’re talking about drug charges – prison and jail were a turning point in Joe’s life.

Although his time in prison was relatively brief, he recalls looking around and thinking, “This is NOT where I want to be.” During his 6 months of incarceration, he developed a personal relationship with God, which he largely credits for his sobriety. This is the longest time he’s been sober since he was thirteen.

Once Joe completed his 6-month sentence, he contacted the Winston-Salem Rescue Mission, where the next chapter of his life began. When he got out, he called and was able to enter into the 90-day and then year-long programs at the Mission. Once he completed those programs, he wasn’t quite sure of what he wanted to do. But, the folks at the mission told him that he could continue to live there if he started to attend school, and he could stay as long as he stayed sober.

He credits the staff there with encouraging him to pursue a degree. When a staff member at the Mission asked Joe what he wanted to do, he had an answer ready: he wanted to be a substance abuse counselor. But, he knew he couldn’t do that without first addressing his addiction.

“I finally worked up the courage to come here and apply,” he says, and will complete his Human Services Technology degree in May of this year. Joe’s journey at Forsyth Tech began with him taking developmental courses in Math and English, and he now has a 3.8+ GPA. He volunteers with Helping Hands Ministries and City with Dwellings, in addition to working part-time at the Winston-Salem Rescue Mission.

“This school has been phenomenal. Everyone here has been great, kind, and helpful,” Joe said. Thanks to his positive experience at Forsyth Tech, he plans to continue his education and attend Winston-Salem State University and would like to get his master’s degree eventually.  

Joe is humble, sweet, kind, and eager to help people suffering from drug abuse and addiction. He didn’t tell me this, but the statewide NC Organization of Human Services awarded him the 2021 Outstanding Student Award.

I don’t know if I’ve ever seen someone so motivated to help other people, and it is clear that Joe also looks forward to seeing how far he can go. He feels fortunate to be where he is, and I am, too – realizing that amazing folks like Joe surround me.