'I wouldn't be where I am today'

United Way and partner agencies lift Columbus man to self sufficiency

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A year ago, Justin Gerken had almost nothing.

The 43 year-old moved to Columbus with nothing but medical debt, an addiction to alcohol and a car he called home.

He had no health insurance to treat Tourette’s Syndrome, a disease he has had since he was 6 years-old. Expensive medications to offset Tourette’s and treatment for old work injuries had put him in crushing medical debt.

His wife and he had just divorced in Dallas, Texas and he was drinking heavily.  A fresh start in his hometown of Columbus seemed to be the way forward. So a little more than a year ago, Justin packed his car and made the decision to move to Columbus. 

“I basically decided to make the tough decision to move home and make a reset of my life,” he said.  “I thought I could make a go of it, but I really started to struggle.”

Justin was looking for change. He found the change at United Way.

He interviewed for a job at Sans Souci. United Way employees met with him and laid out a plan he could follow to help him get through this rough time in his life.

“They told me that if I gave them a year, I could see some goals,” he said. “I hands down made the best decision, not just for me, but also my kids.”

Justin worked with United Way’s financial stability coordinator to start removing hurdles that were stopping him from living a healthy, productive life. 

“I had no idea that a lot of these things existed, I didn’t know they could help me this much,” he said.

The new health care allowed him to stop paying out of pocket for medical costs that had thrust him into debt.  His continuous employment at Sans Souci allowed him to pay debts down and to save money.

When the pandemic hit, Sans Souci shut their doors, leaving Justin without a job, Sans Souci and United Way helped him apply for unemployment so he could still pay his bills and child support while the thrift store was closed.

“They really went to bat for me with unemployment,” Justin said. “It has been a headache, but it has worked out.”

Instead of a car, he is now living in a home owned by his parents and saving for a home of his own.

His two sons, aged 9 and 12 are spending the summer with him in Columbus. United Way helped set him up with childcare through Foundation for Youth and they love spending evenings and weekend swimming at the lake.

“If I had gone anywhere else, I know I would not have made it this far,” he said.

A year ago, he never knew his life could have taken such a turn for the better. Without United Way and Sans Souci, he believes he might still be struggling to get on the path to a productive life.

“I had no idea how far reaching the United Way really is,” Justin said. “I definitely wouldn’t be where I am today without United Way." 

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