Wish Book: Veteran keeps outsize spirit focused on helping others

SAN JOSE — As soon as Nicolas Jaramillo  makes an entrance, he towers over everyone in sight.

“I’m 5-foot-2,” Jaramillo loves to say, “but my spirit is bigger than this room!”

That’s any room.

To meet Jaramillo is to feel determination shimmer off him like a force field. Though he spent years being homeless, he continues to make an inspirational comeback from the trials of a hard life. The broad-shouldered dynamo is also a pure striver. He is newly employed but uses his job to help others in trouble follow his lead.

“My purpose in life,” he explains, “is to help my less fortunate brothers and sisters get up and get going again.”

As a front-line employee at Goodwill Industries in San Jose, Jaramillo gets to reach out every day to a challenging group, close to his heart: destitute ex-military, wracked by physical and mental wounds.

“I look for vets in the streets, the parks and in the terrible encampments around this super rich region,” says the 55-year-old veteran who gave 12 years to the U.S. Army. “Vets trust me because I tell them, ‘I was lost, but not anymore. And, I won’t let you be lost either.’”

Jaramillo’s job as the Career Hub Coordinator for Goodwill makes him the first shining face troubled vets see when they shamble in, seeking help. Quickly they realize Jaramillo crackles with genuine hope and wisdom about survival and personal prosperity.

“Goodwill refurbishes people,” says Karl Darr, Jaramillo’s boss at Goodwill, who hired the diminutive giant the second time they met. “If you want to help, you have to deal with the whole person. Nic was familiar with that concept.”

Along with his positive work in the Hub, Jaramillo and dedicated co-workers take food and winter items to everyone, including vets, in city parks, urban streets and directly into the dangerous encampments. But to vets, Jaramillo’s main message is always affirming:  “I will wrap care around you. I will get you cleaned up. I will get you counseling, food, clothing and medicine. I will get you bus passes and will even help you get a job. I want you to know, you are not alone anymore.”

And if anyone Jaramillo encounters thinks such a happy guy can’t truly understand their problems, Jaramillo will share his autobiography, which includes homelessness, divorce, alcoholism, drug addiction, family alienation and post-traumatic-stress syndrome.

“Nic was raised in New Mexico and was involved in a lot of shady things,” says Pastor Scott Wagers, who today runs a famed mobile ministry in San Jose. Wagers met and took in Jaramillo 18 years back. “But he has come out of a lot of adversity and is now a strong and courageous man.”

Wagers explains that the tragedy of down-and-out vets is that they were once useful, strong, skilled, modern day warriors. But after leaving the military, too many — more than 700 in Santa Clara County, according to the latest census — end up back in a disorienting world, battling confusion, addictions, physical maladies, unemployment and alienation.

“Nic went through all of that,” says Darr, also a vet, noting that Jaramillo is a “sterling role model” in All The Way Home, an effort in Santa Clara County intent on ending veteran homelessness by Veteran’s Day 2018. Local groups leading the campaign include Goodwill Silicon Valley; Destination: Home, a project of the Health Trust; The City of San Jose; the County of Santa Clara, its Housing Authority; and the Veterans Administration, among others.

Long ago, says Wagers, Jaramillo and his ex-wife were among the first needy people Wagers allowed to stay inside the pastor’s church.

“Today, Nic knows how to navigate through all of life’s challenges. He is victor and not a victim.”

That Jaramillo cares so much is apparent in his voice — always bright with emotion. He might be telling the story of the couple who were both raped the first night they stayed at the encampment on Tully Road. Or, he might describe the feral vet, found living in the woods, armed with a crude spear.

“Can you imagine?” Jaramillo says. “He was once an American hero, ready to give up his life for his country. And now? He is out in the cold — barely surviving.”

Jaramillo is already a Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor and intends to enroll at San Jose City College next fall. That will be the first step of a dream to transfer to San Jose State University and complete his degree. “In five years,” he says with confidence, “my ultimate goal is to be a drug and alcohol counselor, working with veterans at the VA hospital in Menlo Park.”

“No one is more determined to succeed than Nic,” says Maya Esparza, Director of the All The Way Home Campaign.

Because Jaramillo — like a good old soldier — has his life planned out in an orderly fashion, the first step was signing a lease on a long term apartment in San Jose — which he did in early November. Goodwill and Destination: Home’s vet program helped him with deposit, rent, modest furniture and household articles.

But to continue to find, feed, clothe and lead unfortunate vets, there are hard-to-come-by needs that might actually improve the quality of his inspirational life.

To be a more effective student, Jaramillo could use a lap top computer. And timidly, he notes, “I could use a truck (used is fine),  so I can load the food, clothing and other donations I take each week to different camps for veterans and homeless people.”

Esparza says, “No one deserves help more than Nic.”

“He is always looking for a way to help others, even as he is building his own life,” Esparza says. “In that way, Nic is already my definition of a great man.”

How to Help

Donations would would help Destination: Home, a program of The Health Trust, provide furniture and other move-in essentials for people like Nicolas Jaramillo, and to help buy him a small used truck to continue his work helping others. Any extra funds will go toward a laptop so Jaramillo can pursue college.

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