He saved a wretch like me

Starting at an early age, Joseph Valadez was on a path of violence and substance abuse that eventually led him to heroin addiction. Committing crimes to get money for his next fix, he ended up spending nearly half his adult life in prison.

After turning it all around at The Salvation Army, Joseph kicked his addiction and, realizing there were other opportunities available to him, he graduated from college at the age of 62.

Read the transcript of the video here:

One day, I’m in this room for two hours. I’m poking all over myself, trying to find that vein. I had this brand new white t-shirt on and it was all full of blood and I got disgusted. I mean really disgusted.

Disgusted. And that’s where my journey began.

My parents were beautiful parents. They brought me up with good morals, good values. They were hardworking people. It wasn’t until I was around 11 years old that I really started getting into the drug scene. 

Where I lived was a predominant Mexican neighborhood, Chicano neighborhood, that was surrounded by white people. There was not a day that went by that I used to hear, “Go back to Mexico,” so the fights that I got into were always against white people in defending my neighborhood because it was us against them.

I was getting arrested a lot, mostly fighting as a real drunk, under the influence. I know a couple of times I did three months, four months, five months. I did a year in a county facility because I got in a fight. 

I had to carry myself a certain way. I had to act a certain way. I had to talk a certain way, put up this facade. I was just a scared little boy when it boils down to because I was scared of the repercussions of not carrying that facade. I was afraid they would find out—just scared. 

Now, mind you, I’m still going to school. I had good grades but in high school I took three tests for three different counselors and the first counselor tells me, “Joseph, you scored good on the aptitude test. You could be a good mechanic.” The second counselor told me, “Joseph, you scored good on your aptitude test. You could be a good construction worker.” And the third one told me, “Joseph, you scored good in your aptitude test and you could be a good landscaper.” 

They’re all honorable professions but never once was I encouraged to go to UCLA or Berkeley or USC. 

I’m hanging around in my neighborhood—we call it “putting in work.” I started graduating to harder drugs. I started taking barbiturates, every barbiturate known to man. I had a lot of people in my neighborhood that died of ODs. I had already had uncles, I already had cousins that died and there was no way, no how I was going to stick a needle in my arm.

But at 15, I experimented for the first time in starting heroin.

Telling the truth, I didn’t like it because it made me throw up. I was experimenting all the way until I was 18. My 18th birthday I stuck a needle in my arm for the first time and I had somebody else do it for me. I looked away. 

Peer pressure, “Oh, it’s your birthday. It’s just going to be one time.” And it was it was like 10 of us and they were starting it and that’s okay let me have some and the ironic thing is that they’re all gone. They’re all dead as a result of their drug abuse.

A little bit later, I got arrested and I was given the option that I could go to prison or go join the service for four years. Of course, it was a no-brainer. I went to basic and I did it in Fort Knox, Kentucky. 

They threw a party when I came home and my brother and my big brother, he’s in there slamming. I tell him save me something. I was home. I started running around my neighborhood getting loaded every day. I don’t know if you’re familiar with it,

withdrawing as a heroin addict, but you go through three or four days of pure hell. You can see your bones, you know. You physically withdraw and it’s ugly—throwing up, defecating on yourself. You know, you won’t eat, not for nothing.

Five months after I left the service, I got arrested. Residential burglary. 

That’s when I started going to state prison. Forty times I’ve been up there. Forthy-three years I’ve been running around doing drugs, 38 as a heroin addict. Each and every time I went to prison, whether it’s for parole violation or for a new term, was a result of trying to get drugs, selling drugs, stealing for drugs—all drug-related. 

They do intake and intake they tell you what’s your drug of choice? Each and every time I would tell heroin like it was a patch of honor.

I didn’t care. Basically, I loved it. I loved the street scene, I love the euphoric high of being loaded on heroin. I loved it all.

At this time, my wife had already left me and I had been living with my childhood friend, my homie, and he’s paying me in dope. Right before I went, “Well, let me have some more man.” I could never have enough.

I found this guy, drunk and I robbed him and all he had was $20. By the time I went back, it was like two, three, early in the morning and I’m banging on his window. “I gotta have money now,

let me have it, let me have it.” And he goes, “Look what you did, man. For $20 bucks they’ll catch you. You’re a two-striker. That’s an automatic 25 years to life. They would have struck you out.”

I have no more veins, none whatsoever. I was so sick I used to have a circulatory chart and try to figure out where the veins were in the human body. I blew them all out.

One day, I’m in this room for two hours. I’m poking all over myself trying to find that vein. I had this brand new white t-shirt on and it was all full of blood and I got disgusted. I mean, really disgusted.


And he told me, you know what I just got off the phone. A good friend of ours is in Costa Mesa and he goes, “Look, he knows you’re coming. He knows you’re going to be kicking. You need some help. After your kick, go to rehab because I can’t see you going for 25 years, brother.”

And that’s where my journey began. I did that.

The Salvation Army, The Salvation Army, man, they saved my life.

I hated God. I hated the whole religious thing. How could a loving God kill my homeboys?

I was just spiritually broken. I hadn’t been to church in 40 years.

Before, I came here, they welcomed me with open arms and they gave me this big old hug and as they’re hugging me, they know that I’m broken and they’re welcoming me and saying, “We know you’re broken. We know you made mistakes.”  

The very first night that I slept here, I prayed, “I don’t know if you remember me, but I’m gonna give you a shot. Can you help me, please?”

I’ve heard “Amazing Grace,” every rendition you could ever think of, man. For the first time in my life, I heard it. Tthe words started making sense to me, man.

I started crying like a little boy, man. I hadn’t cried that hard since my mom died.

“He saved a wretch like me.” I heard the words, “Let go of all your worries, let go of all your pain,  all the ugliness. All the hurt that I had, all the ugly, it was getting washed away. I felt it. You can’t convince me otherwise. God touched my heart that morning.

I mean, God never left me. He was always there, all I had to do was reach out and ask. You know, I had to do away with all that change. Everything was opening up my mind and opening my heart because I wanted that change. I wanted the desire to be something different than what I came in.

I was already 10 months into the program when the counselor asked me, “Hey, you ever thought about going to school?” I go, “Of course, many times.” I sat in that six-by-nine and I will replay the tape in my mind of the wooden scooters and shooters. Maybe if I had stayed in the service 20 years my life would have been different or maybe if I had gone to school my life would have been different.

And they go, “Well, you know what, there’s a lot of money that’s available and I’ll help you sign up for school.” 

The grades that I had today is a reflection of what I could have done at 16, 17 and 18. I made straight As two semesters in a row, got put on the president’s honors list and I made the dean’s list because I finished with a 3.67 GPA.

And I’m going to the master’s program.

I went to go take the graduation picture I told him, “Look, I’m going to take off the rob, don’t get scared.” But I want to do it a certain way. And as I’m taking off my clothes you go oh, oh. You take away the cap, you take away the diploma and what do you have? Just a prison guy crouching in front of the university sign.

When this hit viral, I sat and I cried for about an hour because of all the texts, all the tweets, all the Instagram posts that you helped my brother, my sister, my dad, my girlfriend, my boyfriend go to rehab or the same thing, going back to school.

If it takes my story to motivate, if it takes my story to inspire and if it takes my story to give somebody hope so be it. I know God’s working through me to help convey that message.

Being a 12-step recovery program, I’ve been given the opportunity to go in various juvenile facilities and talk to young men because I remember when I used to sit in them seats and some guy would sit and I’d always think in my mind, hurry up and be quiet man because I got to go play pool or play cards or you’re disrupting my program. 

I feel that’s my calling because in reflecting in my own life nobody encouraged me, nobody told me at any point in my life growing up, nobody told me, Joseph, you have the capabilities of being a doctor or lawyer. I remember many times I’d look in the mirror and I hated the reflection.

Loving oneself, loving that reflection, and above everything else being honest with that reflection was the two biggest ones for me. Love and integrity, I learned them here.

All the people in here, man, the counselors, process groups, residential managers, everybody that was here were so helpful. I still had to stumble a couple of times in here but I knew I was in the right place. 

I’ve been blessed beyond my comprehension because of The Salvation Army and accepting Christ Jesus, my Lord and Savior.

The things that I learned here in the ARC helped me become who I am today. God works in mysterious ways. Well, he’s helped a guy like me, a wretch like me. 

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