Andrew Dewey’s story has three acts, and each plays an important role in his journey from tragedy to triumph.
Act 1: Hurricane Katrina–twelve hours that changed Andrew’s life
On August 15, 2005, Andrew moved his wife and their four children to LaPlace, Louisiana, a few miles west of New Orleans. A promotion to regional supervisor of franchises for a national company allowed Andrew to purchase a large house close to Lake Pontchartrain.
Ten days later, Katrina struck, and Andrew’s life took a sharp turn toward trouble.
The family retreated northwest to Baton Rouge and made it through the storm safely, but the wind ripped off half the roof, exposing the upper floor to torrents of rain.
After five days in Baton Rouge, the family received notice that it was safe to return to their home, but almost immediately upon their return, the levee surrounding Lake Pontchartrain broke, flooding their entire neighborhood.
The flood trapped the family in their house with no food, no cell coverage, no electricity, no flashlights or candles, and no running water.
Their house sat on a small rise, and so only about a foot of water filled their main floor, but water covered the portable storage unit which held most of their belongings. “We lost almost everything,” Andrew says.
For five days, the family’s only food came from helicopter drops. Each time they went outside, Andrew feared an attack from alligators that made their homes in a nearby golf course’s water hazards.
“Now the whole thing was a water hazard,” Andrew says. “There were gators everywhere.”
At night, the family huddled together in an upstairs room, sleeping as they were able.
The water finally receded enough for the family to reach nearby stores. They picked up a generator, provided free from Home Depot, and boxes of food handout out at a nearby grocery store.
Life during the next four months became a deadening drudgery of just making it from day to day—with one bright spot.
After the roads cleared, Andrew and his wife heard a report on the TV about displaced persons who had been crowded into Baton Rouge shelters for 41 days and who were sleeping on a concrete floor. Within three days of bringing back to their home 27 single mothers and children—many of the kids unaccompanied—Andrew and his wife had connected them all with family.
But most of the winter and early spring, the family just sought to survive: feed the kids, walk six miles for water, find a gas station, beg for fuel, do what they could to keep everyone healthy and make it from day to day without any income.
Andrew’s job? With no franchises to manage, he had no work. “I went from being an executive to jobless in a matter of 12 hours,” he says.
Home insurance didn’t help since it didn’t include flood coverage, and the blown roof introduced so much moisture that mold invaded the house.
“That was the worst part,” Andrew says. “Here we were, thinking, ‘We survived! We’re going to be okay.’ And then the house started to stink. We tore out the walls and realized mold was growing everywhere—in the walls, in the frame, on the carpets. It was a nightmare.”
And unlike the flood waters, this nightmare wasn’t going away.
Act 2: A new home in Jacksonville, Illinois—and more troubles for Andrew
Andrew and his wife finally realized they would never make it financially in Louisiana, so they applied to FEMA for assistance and in May, 2006, they moved to Jacksonville, Illinois.
“We had moved to Louisiana with a huge U-Haul,” says Andrew. “We left with a tiny trailer.”
The Jacksonville community gave a lot of help, especially the churches, and compared to what the family had in Louisiana, they were doing “fantastic.”
But Andrew, who says he had been a functioning alcoholic since he was nine years old, turned hard to the bottle.
Almost immediately, his wife began divorce proceedings, and while he knows his drinking didn’t help, Andrew also realized the months in Louisiana didn’t help either.
“We had so much going on during those months in LaPlace,” he says. “We didn’t have time during those four months to think about whether we were making it as a husband and wife. All we had was our humanity and the need to make it through the next few hours, the next few days.”
They became different people.
Within three months, his wife had moved with the four children to Kentucky, and Andrew was on his own. Even though he had a great job when he moved, he soon lost that as well. “I had been with the same company prior to Hurricane Katrina for 15 years,” he says, “and I couldn’t keep my new job for more than six months after moving to Jacksonville.”
Things continued to get worse, and Andrew could no longer function through his drinking. He began to abuse medication as well, and in 2012, a day came when he looked at the man in the mirror, sunken cheeks and underweight, and thought, I don’t know you.
That day, Andrew checked himself into treatment, and thirty days later, he emerged clean and sober, but without much else.
He says, “I was homeless, jobless, carless—they repoed my car when I was in treatment, and with nowhere else to go, I headed for the New Horizons Homeless Shelter.”
A night-time shelter, from which everyone had to be out by 7 in the morning, the homeless shelter was only a block away from the Jacksonville campus of Lincoln Land Community College.
As he stood outside one morning, Andrew thought, I have to do something. I might as well go to college.
Act 3: A new, brighter future for Andrew…
At Lincoln Land Community College, Andrew introduced himself, and days later he was in his first college course. Ever since that day in June 2012, except for semester breaks, Andrew has been taking classes continuously.
After graduating from Lincoln Land, Andrew enrolled at UIS, where he’s majoring in psychology in preparation for a career counseling addicts.
He’s a leader on campus—a member of the Tau Sigma Honor Society, the Psi Chi Honor Society, and the Psychology Club. Since Spring 2015, he has also served as an undergraduate research assistant for Dr. Michele Miller, who was doing research in the emotional readiness for school among young children.
“I was blessed to have this experience,” Andrew says. “It will be invaluable to me in the future.”
This year, Andrew received a scholarship from the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society, which recognizes and encourages scholarship among two-year college students like Andrew.
“My goal is to help others who are caught in the grip of addiction,” he says. “The Phi Theta Kappa scholarship is helping me achieve this goal and for that I am ever so grateful.”
Happy to have found UIS
Andrew, who is 48 this year, says he deeply appreciates how encouraging people have been at UIS to a student his age.
“Most of all,” he says, “I want people my age in the community to know that if they have ever thought about going back to school, you’ll be comfortable at UIS. This campus provides a safe environment for anyone and everyone. I see a lot of effort being put into making that happen by professors and staff.”
Andrew knows he’ll be 52 by the time he finishes his a master’s degree in Human Development Counseling, but that doesn’t faze him: “That will give me a good 15 years,” he says, “to work in drug and alcohol treatment.”