From Shelter Guest to Staff

July 14, 2022

Dwayne President has found his purpose working at the North Tryon Men’s Shelter. “This is where I belong,” he says. “My life is a ministry.” He has turned his past struggles into his most precious asset: empathy. 

“These guys know I’m authentic,” he says. “They know I don’t judge them. They know where I come from, and they know my care is real.” 

When he arrives at work, one glance across the street reminds him how much he has changed his life over the past twelve years. “I was getting high in this same neighborhood,” he says. “Just across the street at that car lot.” 

Back then, he would sometimes stay at the shelter as a guest, unwilling to let go of his drug habit. Ordained as a minister, “I started being behind the pulpit on Sunday morning and in the crack house on Sunday night,” he says. He was also an accomplished shoplifter, so adept at stealing he earned the nickname “Mr. Christmas.”  

By 2010, he’d been locked up in the Mecklenburg County Jail 51 times, and he’d been to prison twice. He’d been to detox 30 times and rehab 15 times. Nothing could make him stop using – until one unforgettable morning.  

He still remembers waking up in an abandoned truck across the street from the shelter. He had a vision that he was dead. It took him to a low place unlike anything he’d ever felt.  “I still remember that feeling,” he says. “I got out of that truck crying, and I was like, ‘God, if you never let me feel this way again, I’ll do whatever you want.’” 

Dwayne walked across the street into the shelter and said he was ready to get sober. He was immediately enrolled in the Substance Abuse Intensive Outpatient Program (SAIOP), located inside the shelter and administered by Mecklenburg County. He spent nearly a year as a resident of Roof Above’s SABER program during which time he graduated from Community Culinary School of Charlotte. Then he served a 20-month prison sentence  for a conviction from eight years earlier.  

But he remained in recovery. He worked as a chef, living in SABER housing and saving to buy his first home. He started giving motivational talks to people in treatment, realized he had a gift for helping others, and enrolled in counseling courses at Central Piedmont Community College. Having earned an associate’s degree, he’s now working toward a bachelor’s degree and, eventually, he hopes, a master’s. “Counseling is the pull on my spirit,” he says.  

He knows staying humble is a key to staying sober. “Just because you’re a counselor – you’ve still gotta do your steps. This doesn’t cure you,” he says. Temptations still arise. But somehow he’s been able to hold on to that sensation he felt on the morning that everything shifted. It’s been a dozen years, but he can still feel it. “That feeling has changed my life,” he says.   

Last year, he realized his path was leading him back to the shelter. He’s able to offer shelter guests the kind of compassion and understanding that can only come from the fact he’s walked in their shoes.  

No matter how chaotic or stressful things get on any given day, he is certain he’s found his place. “I love this job. It doesn’t even feel like work.”