CHICAGO HEIGHTS | A once homeless veteran is turning into a true success story at Prairie State College.
Larry Echols, 52, worked mainly as a forklift operator after serving in the Army for 17 years.
But then came the slaying of his son during a robbery in Harvey two years ago.
"And that started some of my hardships," Echols said.
Echols lost the will to live and began to use drugs and alcohol as a way to cope with the pain.
"And thanks to God, one day I just found out that the alcohol and drugs wasn't helping me," he said. "So I had to change my life 'cause the only thing alcohol and drugs did was cause me more grief."
While staying in a homeless shelter, Echols learned that Prairie State had a grant-funded program called Opt-In for which the public could attend a computer lab with tutors on site.
Echols had no prior college experience, but knew that computers are an integral part of today's working environment.
"I had had no background on computers, period," Echols said. "And I was like computer illiterate."
He learned computer skills that included how to post and distribute his resume online.
It was through the Opt-In program that he met Lisa Zeigler, grants program manager at PSC.
Zeigler referred Echols to the Student Veterans Center at PSC and also recommended that he enroll in a free, eight-week building trades apprenticeship program at PSC that is open to Illinois residents.
Echols completed that program in which he became certified in the painting and drywall industry. That led to some jobs, but not steady employment.
With a desire to stay busy and to start a career, Echols began attending classes at PSC this semester in order to eventually obtain a bachelor's degree in computer networking.
With help from the U.S Department of Veterans Affairs, Echols has also secured a one-bedroom apartment not far from PSC.
Zeigler said Echols was willing to take all of the pathways to success, including improving his math skills at the college's adult literacy center. She said not all students show Echols' perseverance.
"It really shows that there's a lot of opportunity out there and that there's things that people can take advantage of at their community college to help them improve," Zeigler said. "It's not just starting out in college, there's ways that we can get you to the point where you're ready for college."
Echols said the lesson others can learn from his experience is to never give up.
He said those who are homeless often believe no one wants to be bothered with them. He said they need to get out of that mindset that makes them feel they are worthless.
"Just stay positive and surround yourself with positive people," he said.
Echols gives special credit to Zeigler, PSC grants program assistant Erin Violette and Merridith Montgomery, his case worker with South Suburban PADS, or Public Action to Deliver Shelter, for their encouragement.
"You can't do nothing in life without somebody behind you or helping you to take that one step forward," Echols said.
He said he has tried to follow the steps he believes God has put before him on this journey to success, but that path has not always been easy.
"Nothing is worth having that is given to you real simple," he said.
Echols said he does not know if he would be where he is today if he had not attended the Opt-In program, which is no longer available due to a lack of funding.
"Prairie State changed my life," he said. "I know it's not a big university, but believe me, you've got staff members here that do care."
And now for Echols, there is no looking back.
"My life starts now in college," he said.