Nolan White has found his vocation…being of service to others. The empathy he brings to those he serves cannot be learned from books. His compassion has been forged through the gritty realities of his life.
I had to be tough to fit into society because gay people were labeled as those who were weak. I got teased relentlessly in High School and Junior High; called sissy and fag and chased home from school. But in the 12th grade I said, “I’m not going to be called sissy anymore. I’m not going to be called fag anymore. I’m going to be tough.” That was my reason for enlisting in the military. I thought, “We’ll, my dad wasn’t there for showing me how to be a man. Maybe the military can. That was my reason, to shed this gayness.
I’m gay, I was born this way. A lot of people don’t believe that, but I am. After the military, I accepted my sexuality, but I knew I couldn’t do this at home. So, I started traveling. Lived in San Diego, New York, Manhattan, Chicago. Every place I went I met the same people because by this time I was addicted to crack cocaine, alcohol, all kinds of other illegal drugs. My drug use pushed me into breaking the law to get the money to get the drugs. My main thing was I was a thief, but I was a bad thief. (Laughing). Every time that I did something illegal, I got caught immediately. I was the worst thief there was. So, I’ve been in and out of prison most of my life.
In The Beginning
I was molested by many people growing up, and I was pimped. That leaves me with a scar. That’s why my mind frame was: “I’ve got to be tough.” Thus, my becoming a criminal. I’m telling you, I was hanging around people I knew I had no business hanging around. Breaking into houses and just all kinds of stuff. I thought, “I wasn’t raised this way. I was raised right by my Mom,” you know?
But you went through a lot as a kid.
Oh yeah. Let me back up. After I got out of the military I went to California, then DC. Then in 1989 I was in a relationship – my first real relationship. His name was Gilbert Bailey. We stayed together for 7 years.
Breaking into tears
We stayed together for only 7 years. But it turned out before I met Gilbert, he was infected with HIV. Of course, he infected me. I’ve been HIV positive since 1989. So, it’s like dual diagnosis now. I’ve got drug addiction, I’m a homosexual, I’ve got HIV. A lot of times I was walking around hopeless.
I went to prison again in 1999. I’ve been in and out of prison 5 times, and each time I went, the prison time increased…13 months, 14 months, 2 years, 3 years, 10 years. I was running from state to state, had warrants everywhere. Ended up in Georgia 2004, psyching myself out saying “I’m going to do a fresh start.” We call it the “geographic locations” in recovery.
Moved to Georgia. The first day I was there, I found a job at Madonna’s Sports Bar and Café as a kitchen manager. They said I couldn’t start until Monday. Now, understand, I”m an alcoholic and drug addict. I’m going to go get one drink, just to celebrate. Day’s Inn Downtown, Savannah, Georgia. So, I went to River Street in Savannah. I went from bar to bar to bar. At 3:00 in the morning I met someone with crack cocaine, went back to the hotel. We smoked until it was all gone. 4:30, I need more. Went out and did an armed robbery…$37.52 cost me TEN years of my life, ten years in a Georgia prison.
How long had you been using crack?
Wow, I’m amazed you’re still alive, that you’re in your right mind
It wasn’t just crack, it was PCP and other drugs…yeah, I’m surprised I’m in my right mind. Most people are not capable of thinking, holding down jobs with less use than mine. They just can’t.
Nonetheless, that 10 years in Georgia – that’s when it got a little brighter for me. Got a little sunnier. That’s when I surrendered – I finally surrendered to something greater than myself. I don’t know what it was. I grew up in the church, but this was different. I’m not going to lie to you, there’s drugs in prison, everybody knows it. I smoked weed for the first 2 months in prison. But then, I can remember it like yesterday, I thought to myself, “What are you doing? In prison and you’re doing things against the law in prison. What’s it going to take?”
I said to myself, I’m done. I surrender. I don’t know what kind of prayers, what words I used, but I spoke to something greater than myself. I called him Jesus. I said a prayer, and on my knees and crying in my cell, I said “Thank you, Jesus.”
Nolan whispering now…I started thinking about my life. Something’s got to change. The world ain’t going to change. The laws ain’t going to change. I’ve got to change, but I can’t do it on my own. At that moment, something changed in me. I knew it at that exact moment. Oct 3rd, 2006. That’s when I surrendered my life – in prison.
So, I did those 10 years in prison, and got my bachelor’s degree in Christian Ministry from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.
I got out prison and I thought, “OK, now I’m set.” I got out, but guess who was waiting for me at the door? Cleveland. They came and got me and expedited me right back here to Cleveland to stand before Judge Catherine Sutula for aggravated robbery in 2004. I stood before her, had a Public Defender. She said, “Nolan, I’m going to send you back to prison.” I was shaking in my boots, literally. And this Public Defender stood up for me. She said, “No, no, no. This man has been rehabilitated.” Told the judge all the stuff I did in prison. So, the judge said, “You know what I’m going to do? I’m going to give you a chance. I’ll give you 5 years probation.”
This process of me being released from County jail here in Cleveland took a whole year. Instead of going to my Mom, and my brothers and sisters and staying with them, I decided “I’m doing it on my own.” I went and stayed at City Mission, got in their Discipleship program that lasts for a year.
City Mission required me to get a job, and I got introduced to reality again- rejection. Again, rejection. You know, our society says “We are a second chance society.” They’re not. Because everywhere I went to apply for a job, I got the door slammed in my face. They would say, “Oh yeah, we’ll call you.” But no calls.
How did you get past this?
I did what I had to do. I was not going back to prison. I took a job at Lagos in the West Flats. I was a dishwasher and “sanitization man.” That job beat me up. I’m up there in age, and I had a herniated disc, but I did whatever was needed. Then I worked another job, Cantonese Classics Seafoods on the East Dock of the Flats. And I’d work there in the warehouse. I used to go home and no one would sit beside me on the Rapid because I’d stink so bad, smelled like fish.
Yeah, you told me about that a few years ago- you said you would take whatever it took to be independent.
I didn’t stay the full year at City Mission because a lady by the name of Cynthia Bail, from the VA Domicilary at Wade Park, came to City Mission one day and said, “Any Veterans in here?” I said, “Yeah, I’m a Veteran.” They had a state of the art facility with a dorm for people with PTSD and homelessness, but she told me there was a 6 month wait to get in. Three days later, she called to say they had a place for me. This was a 6-month program, but I stayed there 4 months. Now here’s the thing that’s going to trip you out:
Nolan has this gift for gab that draws me in and engages just about everyone.
When I was at the Dom, who was the Director of Operations there? David Blunt. David was Director of Operations for Volunteers of America, VOA, which runs the Domicilary.
David saw how fast I got out of that program, went to the TR House.
Transitional Residency for Vets over on Lorain Avenue. I excelled at TR House, became president of TR House. I stayed there 4 months. Again, this is a one-year process. I go from City Mission to the DOM to the TR house. One year. All this time I’m working at the dishwashing place.
I finally get the key to my first apartment EVER in my whole life. Oh my God. It was an efficiency with no furniture and a mattress on the floor. I ate on paper plates, but God, when I got home from work, I had that key to open my door. How proud I was of myself. How proud.
Nolan is in tears, but laughing too.
Oh, this brings back memories. I haven’t thought about that for a long time. It was an efficiency. I just loved to come back home… a black and white TV, you know. I’ve since upgraded to the 3 bedroom that I’m in today. Got a car, have insurance. My life is so better…so, so better today. I’ve not used drugs since 2006.
As Nolan reflects he returns to an important realization
“Member I said something happened, something changed me in prison on that day in October? I can’t even put a finger on what it was – I just knew something had changed. Now was I perfect? No, of course not. But something had changed as far as what I desired to do in my life.…I became a servant.
Nolan says this as if for the first time.
That’s when I became a servant. That’s what it was. That’s what changed! It wasn‘t all about me anymore.
Letting Go And Leaning in to Service
I worked both jobs for probably a year, but I finally pulled my back out at Lagos, and I couldn’t work anymore.
Nolan in tears again…
I said a prayer. I said, “God, I don’t know what’s going on, I’m doing as best I can. I can’t do this job anymore. Please – provide me with a job that I’m able to do, where I’m able to serve. I want to help somebody using what I’ve been through.”
Nolan draws me in with a whisper…
Next day, I thought: “Call 2100 Men’s Shelter.”
That’s what I’m going to do, apply there. There’s people who are homeless, just like I was homeless. You know? I used to sleep under bridges, and I thought it was okay. I was addicted to drugs and so far gone. So, I called 2100. The Director of Operations, Mike Moguel, said, “Yeah, yeah, come on in.” But he wasn’t there when I arrived. I left my resume with somebody, but never heard anything from him.
Now I’m having the prayer again, “Call 2100.”
I ask to speak with The Director of Operations.
Nolan imitates the voice and draws me in to his story even more.
This deep voice says, “Mike Moguel doesn’t work here anymore, what can I do for you? This is David Blunt.”
“David Blunt from the VA? This is Nolan White.”
He imitates Dave again:
“Nolan White, you’ve always intrigued me. What can I do for you?” I tell him I need a job, and he says, “When can you be here?” So I say, “NOW.”
Nolan’s Work Begins
Dave hired me for 2 days a week at the Overflow shelter at St. Paul’s, 3rd shift. I watched over those guys sleeping on mats on the gym floor. I cared for them and cared about them. I’d hand out mats, hand out blankets, you know what they do. Then, I’d put them on the shuttle in the morning back to 2100. From there I got promoted to first shift front desk Monitor. Then I got promoted to weekend 1st shift Supervisor, then as the dorm facilitator at 2100 for those in pre-treatment for addiction. When Covid hit in 2020 I worked remotely, doing whatever I could from home. When Covid let up I got promoted to Coordinator of Independence dorm and Team Lead on Coordinators.
That’s where I am today. My God, what a process! When I say it out loud, it’s like, Oh My God!
Laughing and switching gears again.
I still struggle with the trauma. Happy to appear in peoples’ eyes as somebody who’s tough. Who doesn’t cry. Who doesn’t show weakness. But, little by little, I’m getting over the need to appear strong because I’m getting more comfortable with who I am, who I really am.
So, what’s your thoughts on what you add to this job?
Well, you know, we can have all the education in the world, all the book smarts, but unless we walk in a person’s shoes, we really don’t’ understand what they’re going through. And look at me. Been homeless, slept under bridges, addicted to crack, promiscuously sexual, even HIV positive. Everything they tell us about… I’ve been there, okay?
Laughing now in his wonderful way…
And here’s the thing I tell them… tell these clients. I got out of it. God’s able to bring you out of it too. That’s what I do! Not just at work, but I keep a mind of a servant everywhere I go. It’s my life.
Strong to me today means not just physical strength but being able to bounce back when adversity hits you right in the face. Being able to get back up, every time, get back up. That’s strength to me. In my life, that’s what I see. Every time something pushed me down I was able to get back up somehow, and God enables me to get back up. This is the wisdom I gained and the lesson I share with everyone now.