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82: ‘The Salvation Army saved my life’ with Joseph Valadez

When Joseph Valadez posted a photo of himself outside of his college, he never could’ve seen the response coming.

Joseph, in a white tank top, beige chino shorts and black Nike Cortez, held a graduation certificate in his tattooed arms.

It went viral and media outlets started calling.

Joseph graduated this year from Cal State University, Long Beach on the president’s honor list with a bachelor’s degree in sociology.

He’s 63.

And he spent much of his life addicted to heroin. Joseph went to prison a staggering 40 times on various drug-related offenses before entering The Salvation Army Adult Rehabilitation Center in Anaheim, California.

He reached a point, he said, where he knew he had to change and he started calling programs, looking for help. But no one wanted him, he said, until he called The Salvation Army.

That cost-free, residential, addictions work-therapy program is one of more than 130 in America in which The Salvation Army aims to help people break the chains of addiction and find not only sobriety, but recovery.

The Salvation Army equips more than 150,000 people every single year to combat addiction, regain health and stability, build work and social skills, and restore families.

And Joseph says it saved his life.

He’s on the show to share his story and exciting news for what’s next.

Show highlights include:

  • What it felt like for Joseph to be holding that graduation certificate.
  • Quick version of his life story—how he got here. 
  • How Joseph says The Salvation Army saved him.
  • His experience in the Adult Rehabilitation Center.
  • The problem he now most wants to solve and why. 
  • What made Joseph decide to change.
  • How faith impacts his life today.
  • How Joseph tries to share the lessons he’s learned.
  • One way he’d encourage others to do good today.

Listen and subscribe to the Do Gooders Podcast now. Below is a transcript of the episode, edited for readability. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post.

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Christin Thieme: Joseph, thank you so much for being on the Do Gooders Podcast today, and welcome.

Joseph Valadez: Hi.

Christin Thieme: So, congratulations, first of all, on your recent graduation. What did it feel like to be holding that certificate after all that hard work?

Joseph Valadez: Oh, I’m telling you, I tell people I couldn’t have done it without The Salvation Army. And it not being for the Anaheim Adult Rehabilitation Center [ARC], God knows where I’d have been.

Christin Thieme: Wow, that’s incredible. Well maybe-

Joseph Valadez: I love that place and all that it does.

Christin Thieme: I love that.

Joseph Valadez: Salvation Army saved my life. I’m sorry. It’s just I’ve been a little emotional thinking about it because I went in there broken, beat up, however you want to describe me. And I didn’t have no life skills, and they taught me so many things, and above all, they taught me how to love myself.

Christin Thieme: That’s beautiful. That’s an amazing thing. Maybe, can you share a little bit about your life? Obviously, your life is complex, and deep, and a long story—for all of us, so maybe a quick version of how did you end up getting to The Salvation Army ARC?

Joseph Valadez: I had been using drugs for 43 years—38 as a heroin addict. And it got to a point in my life where I said… A lot of things happened. It was in a week where I just got so disgusted, so fed up with everything. I got tired of sticking needles in my arm. I got tired of going to prison. I got tired of it all. I got tired of waking up sick, wondering what the heck I’m going to do today to go beg, borrow or steal another fix.

And for the second time in my life, I kicked heroin on the streets. And my friend had said, “Joseph, go to rehab.” And I called rehab. I called about six of them, and none of them wanted me. They wanted insurance. They wanted money. The beds that were available had a one month, two month waiting list.

And when I called up The Salvation Army, that was the seventh one, and they said, “Sure, but you have to wait until Monday.” And after that, it was already a Tuesday or a Wednesday. I had to wait six days. I entered The Salvation Army with six days clean, and that was the worst. So many things, so many anxieties in those six days. And I prayed, and I prayed for the first time in my life. And I went there. But the thing is, I will share that The Salvation Army took me when nobody else wanted me. Nobody else wanted me. Every rehab that I called, nobody wanted me, and for that, I’m loyal. I tell people I’m loyal to Salvation Army because of that. And we know why. We know that God had a plan for me.

Christin Thieme: Absolutely.

Joseph Valadez: And well, he made me wait a little bit. He made me wait a little bit. And-

Christin Thieme: So, that was all the way back in 2013. What was it like that first day when you walked into the ARC? What was going through your mind?

Joseph Valadez: At the end of the ARC, they have a big saying in four-inch letters. It says, “When the healing begins.” And at the end of the saying it has: For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord. Plans to prosper you, not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future, Jeremiah 29:11. It has it right there in big letters. Right? And I didn’t understand that. I did not understand that going through. I just knew I wanted help, and I wanted help in helping me stop putting needles in my arms because I had been doing it for so long. I just wanted to stop putting needles in my arms. And you can’t convince me otherwise, I know after a month there that God touched my heart.

And it wasn’t easy at first, even the first couple of months. But that day that I was in the chapel and I was listening to music, I had heard “Amazing Grace” a thousand times with every different rendition you could think of. But that morning I heard it. It was talking to me. I heard, “Saved a wretch like me. I was lost, but now I’m found.” And I started crying. I started crying. I started crying. I hadn’t cried that hard since my mom died in 2006. And I knew God touched my heart that day, and the rest is history. I had the willingness and the desire to want to change my ways, and The Salvation Army helped me do that.

Christin Thieme: So, what was your experience day-to-day? The Adult Rehabilitation Center is an addictions recovery program where you actually live. So, can you give us a little glimpse into life at the ARC? What does that entail?

Joseph Valadez: Well, in the morning, you go to work at the warehouse, or you go… At that particular time before the pandemic, you would go and help the drivers pick up donations in Orange County, and so I would do either one of them. And then after the eight hours, you come in and you eat dinner, then you go to classes. They have classes for drug addiction, grief and loss, anger management, counseling, one-on-one with a counselor. And they have Bible study. They have Bible study once a week, on top of having the chapel on Wednesdays and chapel on Sundays. So, it was well-rounded. And mind you, I hadn’t been to church in 40 years prior to going there. I didn’t believe in God. I hated God. I hated the whole religion thing. I thought that was the biggest scam man had did on man, prior to entering there.

But the day that I had, however you want to say it, I say God touched my heart. People say, “Oh, you had a spiritual awakening.” No, God touched my heart, and a little after, I surrendered and accepted Christ as my Lord and Savior, and it gave me an inner peace for me, that inner peace that I hadn’t had in all them years running around. Because I tell people, I was running around soulless, like I didn’t have a soul, like I had an emptiness in my heart, like it was a big black hole. And I could never get enough to fill it. And I thank God for The Salvation Army, to the point that after I graduated, I stayed there for a year. I went back every Wednesday for over six years, prior to the pandemic. Every Wednesday, every Wednesday. They gave me the title of Alumni of the Year, 2016.

But I learned that all my life, I had took, I had took, I had took, and I took some more, and not caring. And Salvation Army taught me to give and to give with a loving heart, and to give when nobody’s looking, not to be all, put the spot out, “Well, I did this.” I don’t say that. There’s a lot of things I never, ever tell people because I understood that. They helped me understand the Bible. They helped me understand having faith in oneself, and above everything else, having faith in God. And I tell people, “Look, just have a mustard seed of faith. A guy like me can turn the impossible to the possible, and I have, by God’s good grace.”

Christin Thieme: Absolutely. You graduated from the ARC, and you went on and now have graduated with your bachelor’s degree. And I understand-

Joseph Valadez: With honors.

Christin Thieme: Yes with honors. And I understand-

Joseph Valadez: On the Dean’s List.

Christin Thieme: … you have some exciting news now for what’s next.

Joseph Valadez: And on the Dean’s List. You forgot I made the Dean’s List because I’ve ended up… Twice I made the Dean’s List, twice I made the President’s Honor List at Cal State University, Long Beach.

Christin Thieme: That’s amazing.

Joseph Valadez: But last week I got accepted to the Master’s of Social Work program.

Christin Thieme: That is so cool. Congratulations.

Joseph Valadez: And God willing, after the pandemic lifts, I’m going to have my graduation ceremony. I’m going to have the lieutenant from Hemet Corps give me my degree at the ARC because as it is right now, Long Beach doesn’t know if they’re going to have a virtual, or… But I don’t care. I mean, I do, but it means more coming from a lieutenant from The Salvation Army and coming full circle because I don’t forget. I don’t forget how beat up I was, how desperate I was to do something other than do drugs, and for that, I’ll always be eternally grateful to The Salvation Army. It saved my life.

Christin Thieme: So now, you’re going to go on to get a master’s in social work. What are you hoping to do with that? What’s the problem that you want to solve?

Joseph Valadez: Well, my calling is different than… I didn’t even ask before if I wanted to go to college because of Salvation Army corps, but… My calling is different. My calling is, I don’t know, I do a lot of panels because I’m in a 12-step recovery program and it allows me to go and to join their facilities. And nobody helps the kids, and I feel my calling is helping kids, the civically at-risk youth, when they’re still teeter-tottering and they could go one way or the other. That’s when we want to get them, and I think I’d be better served doing that myself.

Christin Thieme: How do you try to share the lessons that you’ve learned with, take those kids? I mean, when they are teetering, like you said, how do you share the lessons that you’ve learned in your life with them?

Joseph Valadez: Well, nothing’s impossible. You have to have faith. You have to have faith in God and above and beyond. You have to have faith in yourself that, “Yeah, life gets hard sometimes, but you have to have faith, you have to have faith, you have to have faith.” And I also… It only took me my age, preferably not. You could apply yourself in anything you do. No, it doesn’t necessarily have to be school, although I do emphasize when I talk to kids, “Go to school and get an education because we know that with a higher education, the better the job, better pay,” and whatever. But regardless, whatever you do, do it good and don’t be miserable in whatever you’re doing, especially like, I hear a lot of people, “Oh, I don’t like my job.” Why are you working there? I understand the bills, but if you’re in a place that you’re not comfortable with, then you should leave.

I feel my calling is, specifically, like I said, is helping kids because I get so much joy. But on the flip side, I get emotional because I remember when I sat at them seats and nobody encouraged me. Nobody encouraged me. Nobody told me, “Joseph, you go to school and become a doctor,” and “Joseph, you go to school and become a lawyer, or a fireman, or policeman.” Nobody encouraged me there. Nobody told me, no. I think that kids, these days, they need mentoring, and they need a lot of encouragement, especially when they’re coming from broken homes or they’re coming from homes where the cycle is second, third, fourth generation. And it’s not their fault because kids are only going to learn from the people around them, what the parents or grandparents are doing. Unfortunately, we see a lot of that in the inner cities and the barrios, right?

Like I said, I feel that that’s my calling. And I’m already in contact with a lot of organizations that want to bring me aboard or they want to give me a tour, because they’ve heard of my story, and they want to use me in some type of capacity. And I’m good with that. As long as this is a positive way, yeah I’m good with that. As long as it helps one person, preferably everybody, but if it helps one person, cool. If he takes my story, and goes, “I’ve been coming to you,” and if it takes my story to motivate, if it takes my story to inspire, and if it takes my story to give somebody hope, then that’s the plan God has, so be it.

Because I’ve had so many, thousands and thousands of tweets, Instagram, Facebook, from all the social media, saying, “You know what you did for me?” And it made me cry for about… A week and a half ago, I’d seen it and I cried for about a good hour because I did that. Somebody’s getting inspired from my story, and that’s God’s plan. And I believe that with all my heart.

Christin Thieme: That’s amazing. I love that. Well, I’m so happy that you’ve found your calling, and a huge congratulations to you on your graduation, and your acceptance, and everything that’s ahead. We like to end the show by asking, what’s one thing that you would encourage somebody listening to do today to do good, however they can, right where they are? So what would be your one tip for how to do good today?

Joseph Valadez: Well, especially if it’s somebody from my background, your past doesn’t define who you are today. It’s not how you start the race. It’s how you finish it. I started mine a little crooked, but by God’s good grace, I’ve been in this. So far, so good. You have to just see, you have to believe in yourself, you have to believe in God, you have to have faith that he’s got a plan for you.

Christin Thieme: Yeah. I love that. Remember that sign. If you need to write it down, do that. Make your own sign. Well, Joseph, thank you so much for sharing today. Again, just a huge congratulations to you. We can’t wait to see what you do next.

Joseph Valadez: Remember that I have to have a shout out to the Anaheim ARC.

Christin Thieme: Absolutely.

Joseph Valadez: They’re the ones that got me here. We have to make sure we get that across. I love that place. I’m loyal to that place because I wouldn’t be where I’m at had it not been for that particular ARC.

Christin Thieme: Absolutely. Well, big shout out to them. Thank you so much, Joseph.

Joseph Valadez: Thank you, and God bless you. Be safe, please.

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