Homeless teenager finds new life — and a home — at Daymark

CHRISTIAN TYLER RANDOLPH | Gazette-Mail photos
Nick Harper relaxes at his apartment in Charleston last week. Harper turned to Daymark’s New Connections program when he had no place left to turn.
Harper reached his lowest point when he began contemplating suicide.

Nick Harper was held back in first and seventh grade and dropped out of high school in the ninth grade. He was bullied and had suicidal thoughts.

And then life got worse.

Harper, 18, had a falling out with his father. Soon, he was out on his own, without an adequate education, home, food or money.

He rented a storage unit and set up his new abode. He kept the tiny square unit organized: clothes on the right and stacks of movies on the left. He’d take his clothes to a church on Sundays to wash them. He had no way to watch the movies, so he’d just stare at them as he laid on blankets on the concrete floor. His cellphone battery would run out of charge hours after he pulled the door shut and darkness enveloped him.

“The hard thing would be not smelling great,” Harper said. “People would stare at you. One time, the lady at the storage locker asked me if I was living in the storage locker, and the way she looked at me made me feel like I was disgusting. People on the bus would call me names.

“It was in that time I thought about killing myself.”

And then life got better.

Harper became involved with the nonprofit New Connections, a transitional-living facility on Charleston’s East End. New Connections is one of three social-services programs offered by Daymark, which will hold its annual three-day tennis tournament fundraiser at the Charleston Tennis Club starting this Friday.

Jeff Dickess, a case manager for the transitional-living program, said Harper is why the program exists.

“Nick is one of the success stories,” he said. “You can take a kid off the street or homeless or in a disadvantaged home and give them hope. It boosts their morale, their ego, and it gives them hope.

“There is a brighter future out there, and we’ll provide the tools for you if you’ll take advantage of the opportunity.”

Harper has done that since coming to New Connections in April 2015. He couldn’t immediately move into one of the five apartments available at the building until he turned 18, because he didn’t have parental consent.

Harper celebrated that life-altering birthday on Sept. 23.

He has lived in the one-bedroom apartment since — “He keeps the most immaculate apartment,” Dickess said — and holds a job at Park Place Cinemas, downtown. A requirement to stay in the apartment is to maintain a job.

Harper is nine months through an 18-month stay, and he has his eyes on a career as an electrician. The U.S. Army is another option he is considering.

He said he is shy, but he willingly talks about his struggle. He wants others to find their way.

“The way you see me now is a lot different than what I was,” Harper said. “When I was homeless, it was hard for me to talk . . . I didn’t talk to my teachers, I didn’t talk to nobody.”

Harper remembers when he got into the argument with his father. He was frustrated with how things were going, with the conditions of the home.

Harper loaded his belongings onto a bus and moved them to the storage unit. It took several trips.

Months later, Harper could move into his new apartment. He asked for Dickess’ help in moving his life from one place to another.

Dickess didn’t know they would show up at a storage facility.

“He kept quiet about where he was staying,” Dickess said. “He was homeless, but he didn’t go into a shelter.”

Harper has a home. He learns, he is fed and he is surrounded by people who care for him.

A present that once seemed so bleak now has given way to a promising future.

“This place has changed my life,” Harper said. “Ever since I was a kid, I didn’t want to go to school. I fought with my parents all of the time. I fought with kids. I went from me wanting to kill myself and brought my life up to where everything is OK.

“I have a job, I have money, I have all these new friends here. It’s a whole new life. I’m a brand-new person.”

Reach Chuck McGill at chuck.mcgill@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-7949 or follow @chuckmcgill on Twitter.

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