The alarm clock bleats at 4:45 a.m. and a hand reaches to silence the noise.
It’s still pitch black outside. A silhouette pulls himself from the comfort of his bed, stretching to relieve his sore muscles.
Careful not to wake his wife, he gently kisses her forehead.
He quietly walks past the rooms of his children. He won’t be able to see them off; but, if he’s lucky, he’ll snag a hug before bedtime.
It’s muggy outside. Even with no sunlight, the hot St. Louis air is thick. Justin climbs inside a hollowed metal shell, a moving truck, puts a cold bottle of water in the cup holder next to a bottle of ibuprofen. He turns the key and the engine roars to life.
As he pulls away, he passes house after house blanketed in sleep. Hardly anyone is awake this early, but for Justin, it’s by choice.
Justin is his own boss, putting in 60+ hours a week at his small moving company. But life wasn’t always like this – moving forward. Not too long ago, Justin watched as his life came to a screeching halt, threatening to take away everything he held dear.
As Justin arrives at his destination, the sun starts to crest the trees. Although pretty now, the early sunrise will prove to make the day that much longer and hotter.
A young but weathered pair of hands pushes up the rear door. It screams, echoing throughout the empty inside. In a few hours, this truck will be filled with the entire contents of someone’s life to be hauled off to the next adventure.
Inside, most everything is packed. Furniture is still strewn about from room to room, to be expected. The bed frame is still in one piece, something that will need to be disassembled before loading. Stacks of boxes fill the living room: photographs, canned goods, clothes and toys, with a few labeled “fragile.”
“Daddy, what are we going to do?”
It’s a phrase no parent wants to hear. For Justin, it was reality. And the look in his children’s eyes as he broke the news still haunts him to this day.
It started when Justin became extremely sick and spent two years bouncing from doctor to specialist to hospital. Every test and scan came back with no clear answer. All Justin knew was there was a severe pain the size of Texas in his gut. So severe he couldn’t leave home without a bucket. Every day, he fought through the pain, oftentimes vomiting as he drove. If the pain was unbearable, he’d pullover and hope for it to pass.
“On a scale of 1 to 10, it was 12.”
Doctors would later discover the cause of Justin’s severe pain, but not before it was too late. Being in the delivery business, driving long hours and lifting, with a condition where stomach acids had eaten a hole through the lining of his stomach, Justin’s illness posed a huge problem. Justin fought to keep up but it became too much, and he lost his job.
Suddenly, Justin’s world as he knew it – with his wife and three kids – came crashing down.
The news hit Justin hard and couldn’t have come at a worse time. His wife, Heather, was taking care of their three young girls, 6, 4 and not quite 1.
Being the sole provider for his family, Justin knew he needed to find something and fast. For months, he applied. Bills piled, but the phone never rang. He searched everywhere for something, anything. Heather even tried to pick up hours as a medical assistant, but the hours and pay were little and the distance to work was considerable. Bills continued to pile with no new leads. Their backs were against the wall. The kids needed new clothes, and their pantry was bare.
Not knowing what else to do, Justin and Heather tore their house apart, scrounging for loose change in drawers, under beds and beneath seat cushions. They were penniless and had officially hit rock bottom.
For Justin, it was a feeling of devastation, loss and guilt.
It was months in the making and as Justin sat with the eviction notice in his hands and his family by his side, he was confronted with reality: his family might have to split up. He couldn’t let his kids end up on the streets. Heather could take the kids to her mom’s, and Justin would go to his. Eventually, if and when he found a job, he could piece his family back together.
A dolly squeaks down the driveway, hauling a deep freeze. A sweating Justin close behind, the steep concrete fighting his every move.
He finally wrangles the beast into the truck and straps it down so it doesn’t slide. He pauses a minute to steady his breathing, take a swig of water and wipe his brow.
Being threatened with his family’s separation hit close to home. Growing up, Justin didn’t have that one, solid place to call home. After his parents split, he was always moving around from place to place. It was the last thing he wanted his own kids to experience. Like any parent, he wanted to give them a fair chance at life and happiness, something he had already fought for once. Everything was riding on his job.
“I’ve already faced it once. I won’t face it again.”
It’s the mantra Justin lives by each day, every day since the scare. It’s what keeps him going from sun up to sun down, hauling furniture from place to place that leaves him in a state of don’t-touch-me sore, only to get up and do it again. To ensure his family has food on the table, a roof over their heads; that they’re safe and secure.
“People say once you have kids, you can’t imagine life without them,” Justin says, lugging a mattress to the truck. “And it couldn’t be truer.”
The sun climbs the sky, taking the temperature with it.
He pauses to answer his phone: “This is Justin.”
Before he pockets it, his phone reveals four beautiful faces smiling from the screen.
“That’s Heather,” he says, pointing to the woman on the left, “my wife, my anchor, my everything. She reminds me everything’s going to be okay.” He shakes his head and is quiet for a moment. “We’ve been through so much together. No matter what, she’s always in my corner.”
Behind Justin’s tall, strong frame lies a soft heart for his wife and kids. With his parent’s separation, Justin didn’t have the greatest example of family, but Heather came along and changed all that.
As Justin puts it, before they met, nothing mattered. “She gave me hope and purpose again. I don’t know where I’d be if I hadn’t met her. I’m the person I am today because of her.”
“And my daughters,” a smile creeps across his face. “They have such big dreams already, and it’s my job to make sure they achieve them.”
Three kids, now all under the age of eight.*
Working hard is nothing new to Justin. He was raised in a family where career was put first, meaning, when he lost his job, it hit him that much harder.
A close neighbor saw their struggle and suggested Society of St. Vincent de Paul of St. Louis, a United Way funded agency that could potentially help him and his family get back on their feet. Justin felt defeated. He wanted to be able to protect and provide for his family himself, but knew he couldn’t do it alone. He needed help. His family was being threatened with homelessness. He had no choice and picked up the phone.
In a matter of a few days, Justin had hope – something he hadn’t felt in so long. St. Vincent helped to keep a roof over their heads and their lights on, filled their pantry and fridge, and provided the kids with new clothes and necessities.
For the first time in months, Justin and his young family saw light at the end of the tunnel. St. Vincent served as their lifeline and support system, checked in on the family every step of the way, making sure they had what they needed to make it through.
“Their love is what kept us going. Had it not been for St. Vincent de Paul and United Way, I wouldn’t have been able to keep my family together.”
And, when Justin decided to start his own business, St. Vincent was there to help.
Justin figured if no one was hiring, he’d hire himself, and going into the delivery business seemed like the ideal fit. He had the experience and start-up costs were low. He hit the ground running, purchased the necessary equipment and employed a small, eager team. Today, he’s his own boss, working countless hours, and has brought the help St. Vincent gave him full circle by helping others who were once unemployed like him.
With his business still fairly new, Justin does whatever it takes to ensure he never sees that look of worry in his family’s eyes.
“I will do anything to keep that from happening.”
Justin loads the last of the many boxes, rolls down the door, tests the lock and climbs into the cab. Next stop: unload what he just loaded, but now with the sun blazing overhead and his muscles growing weary. But this is what it takes – all day, every day of the work week.
It’s dark out before Justin returns home. A single light glows from the porch. He makes his way up the sidewalk and starts to mount the porch stairs. The door opens, unleashing a sea of screams, giggles and the best thing he has seen all day – his daughters and wife. They jump into his arms and climb him like a jungle gym. His laugh booms as he hugs them, kissing the top of each little head. Heather admires with a smile from the doorway. Surrounded by this much love, you can’t help but smile.
“This is why I do it.” He holds them close. “It’s all for them.”
About Society of St. Vincent de Paul of St. Louis
The Society of St. Vincent de Paul strives to meet people’s basic needs and promote financial independence by providing services to feed, clothe, help, heal and shelter those in our region. They have been a United Way funded agency since 1933.
*Editor’s note: Justin and Heather had their fourth daughter in May after this interview.