LONGMONT, Colo. — On a winter night seven years ago, Doug Branstetter shivered in a park as he tried to drift off to sleep. The birthday candles he was burning to stay warm had singed holes into his sleeping bag.
"My life was just falling apart," Branstetter said.
That's when Branstetter said he hit rock bottom. It took a series of positive influences — the OUR Center and a network of friends — to climb out. And, now, Branstetter is trying to use his experiences to help others who have hit a similar low point.
Branstetter, 54, who was once the owner of Boulder Muffler in Longmont, started out as a successful entrepreneur, earning a six-figure salary.
Then, Branstetter said, he was a victim of identity theft that led to his being evicted from his home. Stress and other complications chipped away at his health, and in the summer of 2005, Branstetter had a stroke. He weighed only 97 pounds when he was admitted to the hospital. His health problems quickly compounded, and he slipped into a coma for nearly a week.
"While I was in the hospital, they went ahead and evicted me because I was a no-show at court," Branstetter said. "They threw everything I owned out on the street, and people just took off with it. They carried it away with my own wheelbarrows."
Suddenly, Branstetter had nothing. He was homeless, trying to endure a freezing winter without a penny to his name.
"I had never been homeless in my life," Branstetter said. "It just was not me."
Desperation eventually forced him to get help. And it came from a familiar place.
Branstetter's muffler shop, which he no longer owns, had been across the street from the OUR Center, a Longmont organization that rehabilitates people and helps them become self-sufficient. The center offers services for the needy, including free meals, clothing and rental and utility assistance.
Branstetter ate at the center a few times. But it appeared that his time there would be short lived. Branstetter admitted that he was disruptive while visiting the OUR Center multiple times and was told that if his behavior continued, he could no longer return.
"I was extremely mad at losing everything in my life," Branstetter said. "I was determined to hurt somebody."
And then he met Sandy Stewart.
Stewart became Branstetter's caseworker at the OUR Center. She didn't make any promises, but said she would help Branstetter get on the right track. She made sure he got food. She got him a photo ID. She helped him with social services. With her support, Branstetter also began going to church again.
"Sandy saved my life," Branstetter said. "She's my saint, and she's seen me through every bit of this thing."
Perhaps most importantly, Stewart helped him get an apartment. A 100-year-old woman named Thelma Horton, who Branstetter describes as his best friend, lived next door.
Because Branstetter dropped out of school at age 12, he had an elementary grasp on reading and writing. Horton, he said, taught him to read and write at an adult level. "She was one of the first people that offered me a hand," Branstetter said. "I worked on my reading. We read the Bible every morning, and sometimes she'd listen and sometimes she'd sleep through it."
Even today, the friends begin every day with a 5 a.m. phone call to chat about their lives, something they have been doing for the past six years.
Now, Branstetter is enrolled in classes at Front Range Community College in Longmont and is working on an associate degree. He wants to give back and help people in the same way that Stewart and the OUR Center helped him. Right now, he is a volunteer at the OUR Center.
"I would like to be a human resources person to help homeless people find work because it saved my life," Branstetter said.
OUR Center executive director Edwina Salazar called Branstetter a role model for other clients.
"I think (working for the OUR Center) is his dream, and he certainly would be an inspiration to other people," Salazar said.
Branstetter knows first-hand that difficult experiences can be overcome. Now, he wants to use his experience to help others get off the streets.
"I believe that a smile can save a life," Branstetter said. "And I'm trying to improve the lives of the people around me."