If you know someone in desperate need of life-changing advice, Donald Justin Vess—D.J. to his friends and co-workers—is your go-to person. He’s become something of an expert on the subject. He’s been there, done that and has the scars to prove it. He’s living proof that no matter where you find yourself in life, with the right help and the right support, you can recover against seemingly insurmountable odds.
This week, D.J. will check off one more item in his decade-long comeback journey when he walks across the stage Friday night to receive his associate’s degree in Heating, Air Conditioning and Refrigeration Technology at McDowell Technical Community College. When his name is read, there will be a distinction—high honors, 4.0 GPA (grade point average).
But the pinnacle of success is not where D.J. has always found himself.
In 2001, D.J. graduated from high school and started taking classes at McDowell Tech. But soon thereafter, his life went off the rails. He readily admits that he was making bad decisions and was hanging around with the wrong group of people, doing things he knows he shouldn’t have done. He had, as he put it, “done drugs” in high school and things were starting to escalate.
It wasn’t long thereafter that law enforcement charged him with possession of a controlled substance, and he went to prison for a year.
“It sent me down a road I was not prepared to go,” he said. But he had no choice at that point.
And when he was released from prison, now a felon, life did not get any better. Over time, he had become addicted to drugs. In 2010, he overdosed. It was definitely a low point in his life.
But in August, 2010 he met Jack Sammons, who was then pastor of Greenlee Baptist Church, and Jack introduced him to the master of life changes: Jesus.
“I got saved, and from that point on, things began to change,” said D.J. “Addiction had taken over my life, and it didn’t magically go away when I got saved, but I had the strength to fight it. God started to work in my life. The people I had hung out with started to fade out of my life, and they were replaced with people who became my mentors. My entire life moved in a different direction.”
He had a young son, Gabriel Autrey, who lived with him and his mom, and he welcomed the change and what it meant for him, his mom and his son.
In 2012, he met his wife, Melanie Robinson Vess. “She is amazing and a huge blessing in my life,” he said. “She should have left me a time or two, but she believed in me and the man I could become. Her love and support mean the world to me, and she has been the key to this ‘whole operation’ for some time. She works two jobs, one at Olson Huff Center, and another with Overture Promotional Products to help make ends meet. She also homeschools D.J.’s stepdaughter, Abriella Rojas.
When Sammons left Greenlee, D.J. found another mentor and friend in Jerry Lewis, pastor of Grace Community Church. “He and his family invested deeply in my family and me. Over time, he has helped me with marriage and financial counseling, and helped me to work through unresolved issues from my past that I needed to deal with to move forward.” In fact, the computer that D.J. has used to do his assignments at McDowell Tech is one that had previously belonged to Jerry’s son Trent, a student at Appalachian State University.
Lewis also introduced D.J. to Chuck Tripp, a Christian Counselor whom he says helped him let go of stuff that he had carried around for years. “Chuck was instrumental in helping me to move on.” D.J. knows now that it’s important to talk about these things and not bury them, or you’ll get stuck there.
If asked, D.J. would tell you that it’s not been easy. It has taken courage, perseverance, hard work and a network of friends and family to hold him accountable and keep him moving forward. He regularly meets with a life group at Grace that he describes as ‘amazing,’ and after he goes to the gym to work out at 3:30 in the morning, he goes to pray with two other Christian men before he goes to work.
For the last six years, D.J. has worked with the City of Marion. He is so appreciate for Brant Sikes, who gave him an opportunity to work for the City when a lot of other places wouldn’t. A few months ago, he received his ‘5-year pin,’ a milestone of sorts. For the last two years, he has been a street crew leader working on building maintenance and right-of-way mowing.
Returning to College
It was Bruce Cook, a refrigeration contractor for the City of Marion, who started talking to D.J. about working in HVAC, the more common name for Heating, Air Conditioning and Refrigeration Technology. “We talked about the pay and strong demand for that kind of work. I had always wanted to go back to school.” Unbelievably, that same day, he saw an ad for free tuition at McDowell Tech and went down to talk with folks in admissions and financial aid about going back to school.
He enrolled in the fall of 2021 and is so glad he did. “It has been one of the greatest experiences of my life,” he said. “My teachers, classmates and everyone who works at the college has been so helpful and supportive. It has been really awesome.” That is not to say that it has not also been challenging. Finding balance in his life has been the hardest, juggling time for church, work, school and time with his family.
But that hard work has also come with a reward, he said. He loves working in HVAC, and his degree from McDowell Tech opens the door to so many new opportunities and options for him.
“So here I am,” D.J. summarized. “God has completely changed my life from where I was 21 years ago.”
D.J. hopes that a redemptive work will also take place soon with the State of North Carolina. A few weeks ago, his life group hired an attorney, Mike Edwards, to help him have his criminal record expunged. It is a legal process available only to felons with certain types of crimes who have turned their life around, stayed out of legal and criminal trouble, and can provide letters of reference attesting to the positive changes in their lives.
While he is appreciative of everyone from his life group and those writing letters on his behalf, he is especially proud of a very heart-felt three-page letter from William Morris, one of his primary instructors in the HVAC program at McDowell Tech. William attested not only to his hard work as a student, but also his Christian character and the positive influence D.J. has been on others in the class.
Based on comments from his attorney, he is pretty confident that the expunction of his record will take place. “Here I am getting a degree from McDowell Tech and hopefully getting my record scrubbed. God took one of my greatest failures and turned it into one of my greatest successes. He is also helping me to be the father, husband, friend and employee that I should be.”
“I looked everywhere in life to solve my problems but up, but when I did, my life started to change. He (God) breaks bad patterns in your life. I no longer need a drink or substance to get by when I get up in the morning, besides all the other changes that have taken place.”
“I have Jacob Jenkins to thank for so much of this,” he said. “He was my best friend. He went to prison, too, but he found God and started going to church. He started making good decisions and planted the seed with me, encouraging me to go to church and get saved. He never gave up on me. Unfortunately, he was later killed in a car accident, but I thank him for planting that seed in me many years ago.”
“We are so glad that D.J. walked in our doors two years ago and started the conversation about restarting his educational journey,” said Dr. Brian S. Merritt, MTCC President. “As we often say, we are in the life-changing business, too, but of a different sort than D.J described. We are at our best when we are advising, mentoring, teaching and lining people up with the resources they need to get a degree, certificate or diploma to improve their socio-economic status. For those who knew D.J. in his old life and wondered if he could ever change, come see who the new D.J. has become as he walks across the stage Friday night, and hear our 2022 Teacher of the Year read his name, announce his degree and state ‘with high honors, 4.0 GPA.’ That will be just one more step in a remarkable journey of redemption and newfound success. Best wishes D.J.!”