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The Lifeline

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Spreading Goodwill

Featured Photo from Spreading Goodwill

Thanks to Goodwill Industries of Central Florida, Kenny Jones, a formerly homeless Army veteran, is thriving in Oviedo.

The bio of Kenny Jones is impressive to say the least. The Oviedo resident is a retired Army Ranger, an accomplished Johnson & Wales schooled chef, and a graduate of Louisiana State University with a degree in chemical engineering.

But two years ago, his life took an unfortunate turn when Kenny decided to move to Orlando and help a friend, another ex-Ranger, who was down on his luck. 

“That didn’t work out too well,” Kenny says. “As soon as I arrived, my friend lost his apartment and moved in with his girlfriend.” Kenny was not welcome. “So, I went to the streets.”

Homeless and living in a vacant lot off of Orlando’s South Orange Blossom Trail, Kenny secured a $20 tent from Goodwill Industries of Central Florida. It would be another nine months, however, until Kenny found out just how much Goodwill would truly change his life.

Born in the Philippines in 1970, Kenny seemed destined for success. Raised as the hardworking son of a Navy man, he followed his father’s footsteps by joining the service fresh out of high school. After serving seven years and surviving two tours of combat in Afghanistan and Iraq, Kenny took advantage of the GI Bill at age 24 and enrolled at LSU. 

Upon graduation, Kenny moved to Virginia armed with his new degree and took a desk job. 

“I was used to jumping out of airplanes,” he says. “Sitting at a desk did not work out so well, so I took a year off to find something that would give me an adrenaline rush like the Army.”

Oddly enough, that became a stint at Johnson & Wales University to become a chef. Kenny’s new career found him preparing culinary feasts on cruise ships, followed by traveling through Europe and Asia by motorcycle, picking up cooking gigs and gaining a broader understanding of the world’s diverse palates.  Life was good.

Kenny had every reason to believe the positive momentum would continue when he came to the aid of his friend in Orlando in 2016, but it was not to be. When homelessness struck, Kenny was too proud to ask for a handout. He secured a job at a call center in Lake Mary where he showed up on time and dressed for work every day.

“I was sleeping outside, but no one had any idea,” Kenny says.

He liked the South’s warm weather, especially the way it soothed his combat-fatigued knees, so Kenny’s plan was to get off the streets and stay in the area working in security, as he did as a U.S. Ranger. Another homeless veteran advised Kenny to call 211, a crisis hotline run by the United Way.

That’s when Ruthie Williams, job placement specialist for Goodwill Industries of Central Florida’s Homeless Veterans Reintegration Program, came into Kenny’s life. Goodwill’s reintegration program, which launched in 2015 via a grant from the Department of Labor, has helped 474 homeless veterans locally with various needs, including finding employment for 162 of them, like Kenny. 

“I met with him, and I drew up an employment program and discussed his goals,” Ruthie says. “That’s what we do. We work with people based on their goals, what they are looking to get out of this program, and how we can help. With Kenny, I could tell he was an optimist and eager to get to work.”

“Ruthie, that woman is a Godsend,” Kenny says. “When she talks to me, she makes me feel better about myself.” 

By 2017, Kenny’s life had changed once again. He joined a church in Apopka, where he met his girlfriend Kiache. He also took a tutoring position to help young kids at a training center on Orange Blossom Trail that focuses on a STEM curriculum.And with Goodwill’s help, Kenny moved into his own apartment in Oviedo.

“I love it,” he says. “It is close to the city, but far enough away. The neighborhood is very friendly. If someone has a barbecue, everyone is invited.” 

In the meantime, Goodwill assisted Kenny with preparing a résumé for a career in security. Staff helped with class enrollment, securing a physical, and filing for proper licensing. 

Abby Clark, Goodwill’s fund development manager, says the entire organization considers Kenny the face of the reintegration program.

“We are all so proud, and he is very excited about where his life is now,” Abby says. “He embodies Goodwill’s mission of building lives that work.”

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