(Portland Trail Blazers photo)
PORTLAND — Leonard Brightmon finally came up with the answer to a question people have been asking for centuries: What in the world could possibly be better than a free meal?
Easy. Being able to pay for one yourself.
Two years ago, the Portland resident was in line at the Trail Blazers Harvest Dinner, an annual event that feeds more than 5,000 homeless and underserved individuals at the Rose Garden.
Thursday, the 43-year-old was a volunteer there, but he wasn’t serving turkey and stuffing longside Nate McMillan or former Blazers Jerome Kersey and Brian Grant. He was handing out information about the Portland Central City Concern’s Community Volunteer Corps — also known as the organization that gave him his life back.
See, Brightmon has been homeless for the better part of his life. But hungry as he was, it wasn’t the pursuit of food that him led to a life of crime that’s gotten him arrested more times than he can remember. No, for Leonard, the heroin needle was a far more powerful incentive.
Brightmon, a Dallas native, said that he has been addicted to some kind of drug ever since he was a teenager. He lost his father as a 7-year-old, and while he credits his mother as his biggest supporter, confesses the instability of a single-parent household helped trigger his downward spiral.
So for about two decades, he turned to the streets to chase his fixes while the police chased him. The most discouraging part? Brightmon thought he had mastered the art of life.
“I thought I was doing all right,” Brightmon said. “The drugs didn’t really catch up until my late 30’s.”
That’s when two events took place that pained Brightmon worse than any comedown or withdrawal symptom.
First, the courts took away his then 1-year-old daughter, Amaylah. Not long after, his mother told him candidly “I don’t even recognize you anymore.”
It was then that Brightmon realized that he didn’t recognize himself either, and that change had gone from a desire to a necessity.
So he reached out for help. Soon after, he had been integrated into the Central City Concern’s Community Volunteer Corps, performing simulated jobs that taught him basic responsibilities such as working in groups and meeting deadlines. Not long after that, he was fully employed by the CCC as a janitor.
“I had gotten to the point where I was tired, where I wanted something different,” Brightmon said. “I guess you can say that I found some way, I found a way to stand on my own two feet.”
These days, Brightmon has a roof over his head in a North Portland apartment complex and has been clean for 29 months.
He said he loves waking up and being able to pay bills, but not nearly as much as he enjoys going to the park with his 5-year-old daughter, of whom he now has 50 percent custody.
He is also as close to his mother, Grace, as ever. And when he isn’t with family, he is taking strides to lure others to the CCC so that they may experience similar transformations.
“People come up to me daily and tell me that I’m a role model in their life,” Brightmon said. “I feel like I’m helping them turn themselves around.”
Nowadays, it doesn’t appear as if Leonard has anything to complain about in his life.
Well, except for one thing, of course — the Blazers did lose to the Mavericks in the first round of the playoffs last season.
“Actually,” Brightmon said, “I’ve always been a Dallas guy.”
Matt Calkins covers the Trail Blazers for The Columbian. He can be reached at 360-735-4528 or email firstname.lastname@example.org