After nearly 20 years of drug and alcohol abuse, Orlando Ward hit rock bottom.
He'd lost his job, and family members stopped answering the phone when he called for money. He was in and out of jail, and in 1998 he reached his lowest point when he found himself homeless on skid row in downtown Los Angeles.
"I use to drive by skid row and wonder how people could live that way," Ward says. "It was craziness, insanity. I had no idea that 20 years later, I would be one of those people."
No one would have predicted Ward's downfall. As a teenager in the late '70s, he was named Orange County's basketball player of the year. He was recruited by hundreds of colleges, and chose Stanford University. But his budding basketball career was cut short when he suffered a devastating knee injury his sophomore year.
"That put me on a different trajectory in life," Ward says. "There was a period of loneliness and isolation that I think made me make decisions that I wouldn't have made in the past."
One of those decisions was trying cocaine for the first time at a party his sophomore year. His drug and alcohol use got worse after college. He lost his first job as a senior marketing representative for Xerox within 18 months. He tried rehab several times, but never got sober. The next 17 years he spiraled downward before landing on skid row.
"It was a dark time," Ward says of skid row. "When you are in that place, children and people look at you like you are a monster, that you are less than human. I watched people I cared about overdose right in front of me."
In 1999, Ward had seen enough and entered Midnight Mission, an outreach program that offers services to the homeless as well as drug and alcohol rehabilitation. He flourished at Midnight Mission, so much so, that within 10 years he was named the organization's Vice President of Operations – the highest position ever held by anyone from the streets.
Now, at age 51, Ward is the Director of Community Affairs at Volunteers of America Greater Los Angeles, a human services organization that helps nearly 30,000 people per year. We asked him a few questions about his transition from the streets to the boardroom.