On the surface, Richard Lopez would appear to be like any hard-working person in the middle of their career.
Lopez, 51, and his wife Jo Ann have four children and 13 grandchildren. In talking to him it’s obvious he loves his family and thoroughly enjoys spending quality time with the other generations of his family.
However, life was seldom this peaceful or pleasing for Lopez. He was able to turn around an existence consumed by drug abuse and dealing with a renewed faith in God and faithful support from his employer.
Lopez has been named the 2010 Achiever of the Year by Goodwill Industries International. Many of us, myself included, have filled up the back of the van with clothes and household items for Goodwill with an understanding that part of the company’s profile is a commitment to provide employment and job training for people who otherwise could find themselves out of work because of their life circumstances.
In Lopez’s case, it’s important to see where he is now compared to where he has been.
He works in Austin, Texas, as a Goodwill contracts supervisor overseeing contracts with the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles for specialty license plates and mailing services for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. He has learned word processing and bookkeeping skills foreign to him through much of his life and become a trusted mentor for his employees and the supervisors who oversee him.
“I’m on top of world,” Lopez said enthusiastically in a phone interview with Everyday Christian. “I look at others around me and see how God has been so very merciful and filled with my life with grace. I am very, very fortunate.
“I thought I had it bad, but what I have seen around here, I am so blessed. My family is still together and my parents are still alive. I can speak out and share about where I’ve been. I used to be proud that I was the person everyone had to come to score (drugs) or purchase something. Now I’m the person people call on when people say, ‘Will you help us pray for this person?’, or if they are looking for advice.
“I’m proud of the example I set for myself and my employees.”
Lopez’s life was headed in a much different direction in his childhood and adolescence.
He recalled stealing money from his mother for cigarettes when he was 9, which he said, “made me the big guy on the block in my neighborhood.”
His parents were involved in drug and alcohol use, he said, and he followed the trend. By 12 he was smoking and selling marijuana. By 17 he was making and selling methamphetamines, for which to this day he still doesn’t know how he convinced his mother he was simply doing an involved science project for school. He was suspended from high school two weeks before graduation after being caught with marijuana and repeated his final semester before joining the Army. He went through a drug and alcohol addiction program in the military and took an honorable discharge from the service when offered after just 13 months.
During his life with Jo Ann their addictions and habits continued as their children grew. Then came a cathartic moment at about 4 a.m. when Lopez was 36.
“I remember sitting with my wife on the sofa crying,” he said. “Our children were getting old enough that they were beginning to realize what we were doing. The major part of deciding to make the change wasn’t the weapons I carried or the fights I was in or the guns pointing at my face as much as it was my kids.”
The road to recovery went on two parallel paths.
The first path was career-based, and it was rough. Lopez bounced between 16 different jobs over the course of four years, which he chalked up to a lack of marketable skills and immaturity at how to function in a mainstream work environment. Eventually he wound up at Goodwill, where he had worked briefly in the past, and received the training necessary to taste some needed success and eventually advance to where he is now.
Melvin Capler, Vice President of Commercial Services for the of Central Texas, expressed admiration for Lopez's accomplishments and perseverance.
“I am proud to say that I have seen Richard succeed in spite of the many challenges that he has faced,” Capler said. “Once he made that commitment to change his life, he was able to get his life back on track through the power of work. Richard is the kind of employee that can really take an idea and run with it. When he began working here, he was motivated but he just needed to learn what it took to be successful in the workplace. He started as a temporary employee in our mailroom and through his dedication and drive to succeed is now a supervisor in our Commercial Services Division.”
Capler added that Lopez epitomizes the company's values.
“I have seen Richard develop both professionally and personally,” he said. “He has continually proven himself as a valuable asset to Goodwill. His attention to detail and strong communication skills has helped make this program successful and helped to bring in new business. Richard consistently goes above and beyond, serving as a mentor to his employees and setting a positive example for his family at home.
“We are so proud of Richard’s achievements and personal and professional growth. He is very deserving of the Goodwill Industries International 'Achiever of the Year' award. Goodwill hires people who are facing challenges to finding employment and helps them to become successful and build their careers. Richard is just one example of what Goodwill does every day.”
The second path was faith-based. Lopez and his wife are members of the Austin Power House. He credits the ministry and fellowship of the church in sparking his relationship with God and helping him come to terms with his addictions. The church is headed by Bishop Paul Ojeda, who tells of an encounter with God while addicted to cocaine more than 20 years ago to turning his life around.
“Once I became sober I was trying to figure out where I fit into society,” Lopez recalled. “I had no clue how to live. It is still an everyday struggle with sobriety. There is no doubt in my mind that God and the church empowered me to stay clean and sober.”
That empowerment comes from a faith built and nurtured over time hand-in-hand with pro-social behaviors and attitudes.
“What has helped me is the notion of the Golden Rule and that every life needs to be respected,” Lopez said. “I’ve learned to see there are two sides to every story and that people can come to good even when they have hit rock bottom. … I’m here through the mercy and grace of God to be standing here to share with other people that doors will open. We can overcome anything bad that happens – drug addiction, divorce, alcoholism. The church has helped me learn this and really appreciate my family, my wife and myself.”