Editor's note: This is the first of a three-part series looking at the central Kenai Peninsula's population of homeless youth and local efforts combating the issue. Part two will focus on the numerous local organizations helping homeless students and youth.
A $10 dollar bill and a backpack.
That's all Forrest Vest had.
It was 2009 and Forrest, then 16 years old, was living out of his car. After running away from home, his only option was to sleep in the car, or on somebody's couch.
"Living out of a car and couch surfing, it wasn't fun," Forrest said. "It was cold, it's literally hell -- you feel like you're alone and at the same time, feel like a loser.
"I had nothing."
However, hitting bottom was the start of Forrest's journey toward a better life.
Little did he know he would soon find an existence he was then far away from -- one without drugs, without suffering and without constant heartache among his family.
Just a year later, clean and on the right path, Forrest was awarded the $500 Scholarship of Hope at the 2010 Candlelight Vigil for Homeless Youth in Soldotna.
In keeping with his new outlook on life, Forrest didn't take the money.
Instead, he, along with Debbie and Dave Michael, the organizers of the vigil, created the For Rest Fund that could be used as seed money for a teen shelter in the future. The fund is up to $1,500.
Forrest's hope is someday that pile of money will grow and be put toward helping homeless youth who may be in a situation like the one he pulled through.
At the time, Forrest's parents, Heather and Barry Vest of Soldotna, knew something had to be done to help their son. Countless attempts to get through to him had failed.
Forrest had been homeless for about a month and a half. Meals and showers came from a friend's house. On the nights he did sleep in the car, it was wretched, he said.
"I don't know how to put it into words," Forrest said. "It's cold, it's miserable really -- you're confined to the back seat, I don't know how to say it, it's just cold and horrible."
On a Friday, Barry picked Forrest up from Kenai Central High School, where he was a junior.
By Sunday, Heather and Barry had decided to send their son to Second Nature, Entrada -- a treatment center in St. George, Utah.
"It was when I realized he won't listen to us, his parents, at all -- we have no voice with him anymore," Heather said.
The next Friday, Forrest was on the plane.
"When you walk through an airport with no shoes on and handcuffs -- people look at you like, 'What's up with this kid?'" Forrest said. "I obviously looked rough, I was coming off stuff, I had been up all night -- I looked like a freaking crazy person."
For the first month of his treatment, Forrest said he felt an animosity toward his parents. Heather went to visit him a week after his 17th birthday, and their conversation was what Forrest needed to change his perspective.
"You could be gone by now," Heather told him. "I don't know what you're doing, but you could be moved on to your next step and closer to being home.
"You're still here, why not do the best?"
Forrest said most kids in the treatment program reach just the second of four levels, and are still allowed to leave at that point.
"Not many people take the time and say, 'OK, I'm going to do this,'" Forrest said. "I wasn't going to, I didn't give a care, people leave on the second level anyway, so I was like, who cares?"
But his mother's words struck a chord, and Forrest set a goal to reach the fourth level of treatment.
"Once I set that goal, there was no turning back," Forrest said. "This was how it was going to be."
Barry wasn't surprised by his son's attitude.
"Once he decides to do something, he exceeds expectations," he said.
One of the activities at the center was hiking a mountain, but instead of the counselors encouraging him, they were doing everything in their power to make Forrest quit.
"They were saying, 'Why don't we turn around, let's go back, let's go get high, it's so much easier'," Forrest said. "I said screw you, I'm going up there, I'm not going to quit, that's not who I am."
His attitude pushed him to the top of the mountain in the middle of the Utah desert.
"Once I got to the top, I was so tired, but I forgot about it," he said. "Because at the top, you look around, and I could see everything.
"I realized that I had changed from being a piece of (garbage) to something completely different -- it's the changes you see in people, that make you say, 'Oh my God, anything is possible really.'"
Heather noticed Forrest's change, too.
"You had hope again, you had hope for yourself," she told Forrest.
Forrest credits his transformation to the goals he set for himself. Every goal he set for himself, he accomplished.
"I found that once you set those goals there's nothing you can't do," he said. "It's not like they're impossible to do, you just have to commit and you have to keep it."
His parents, along with his brother, Marshall, picked Forrest up and the family road-tripped to Salt Lake City.
"That week we got along better than we ever have since I was 13 I think," Forrest said. "I was really thankful to have my family back and actually appreciate everything they gave me."
The trip was the change everyone was looking for.
"It was the first peaceful time we had in a while," Heather said. "We could really enjoy our time with Forrest."
Finally being able to see their son brought an end to an emotional few months Barry and Heather endured while he was gone.
"I texted to my family that I sent a boy to the desert and brought him home a man," Barry said with tears in his eyes.
After the vacation was over, Forrest was to spend another six months at a residential treatment center in Salt Lake City, which was similar to a boarding school.
"That was the hardest part I think," Forrest said. "You see how everything's fine, getting along so well with your family and then you have to leave them again."
Forrest's story is not uncommon on the Kenai Peninsula.
According to Kelly King, the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Homeless Liaison, there were 301 homeless students enrolled in the KPBSD Students in Transition Program for Homeless Children and Youth during the 2010-2011 school year.
"Each family and student has their own story and their own experience. The reasons why they're finding themselves in this situation is drastically different from each other," King said.
When Forrest, now 18, looks back at his youth, there is something missing, he said.
"I threw everything away," he said. "I regret it now, because I'm a senior, and it's like, 'Oh, the things I missed out on, the things I could have done.'"
His father agrees.
"Doing the drugs at that point in his life stole part of his youth," Barry said. "He sold it to get high."
Forrest was home by October of 2010, rehabilitated and with a new outlook on life.
"There's something definitely better than getting high every day," he said. "My music, my snowmachining, my snowboarding -- just those things that get me to a different place, different state of mind, it's better than anything ever."
Forrest is moving on, and trying to help influence others around him.
After everything he has been through, Forrest wants to be able to help others so they don't make the same decisions he did. His ultimate goal is to become a psychologist.
"I want to help people, I know what that's like -- I've lived it," he said. "I used drugs for four years and so I have the experience to where I think, 'OK, I can help somebody and try to save their life.'"
As far as the drugs go, Forrest knows he doesn't need them anymore.
"I found the high you get from the drugs in my snowboarding and in my snowmachining," he said. "Throwing a back flip or something on your snowboard -- there's nothing better."
Soon after he was home, Heather took him to a meeting about the first Candlelight Vigil for Homeless Teens. There was a Scholarship of Hope offered. Students who were, or used to be homeless could compete for $500.
"I said, 'You know what, I'll sign up,'" Forrest told Heather while at the meeting.
Forrest thought he would write a song for his scholarship entry.
"When I wrote the song, it was like, 'OK, I'm writing from personal experience,'" he said. "And I just wrote it from the heart -- whatever was there."
He won the scholarship, but the $500 was not going into his pocket. He wanted to use it to help others.
"I told my mom, 'Look, it's 500 bucks, I don't need that, I've got everything I ever wanted,'" Forrest said. "So I told her, 'No matter how I do it, I'm going to pick some of these kids up, take them shopping, get them the things they need, or I'll find some way to do it.'"
Debbie and Dave Michael, the organizers of the vigil, suggested to Forrest that he open a bank account and put the $500 to build from. The For Rest Fund was started as seed money for a shelter in the future for homeless teenagers.
"It's planting a seed for a bigger vision," Dave Michael said. "We want to support him and partner with him, he's a great kid, he's got a great heart."
Forrest was able to tell his story at last year's vigil. With his experiences, he wanted to be able to help others that may share the position he was in.
"Just to be able to say, 'Hey, you can do this,'" Forrest said. "There's always something better, appreciate the things you have -- don't take it for granted."
Barry thinks Forrest's contribution will start a ripple effect throughout the community; he's already seen signs that it has.
"For Forrest, I hope he sees how little actions can have big effects," Barry said. "And it can go in the negative way or the positive way -- it depends on what you do with it."
So far, Forrest has been using his experience in a positive way. He will be speaking at the 2011 Candlelight Vigil for Homeless Youth taking place on Thursday at Farnsworth Park in Soldotna at 6 p.m.
One of Forrest's passions has always been soccer. During his troubled time, soccer was one of the many things he missed out on. While attending Kenai Middle School, Forrest led his team to the borough championship each of the three years he played. He wanted his brother Marshall, who also goes to KMS, to have the same experience, so he helped coach his eighth-grade team.
But first, Forrest helped Marshall become team captain.
"At the start of the season he was telling me what I needed to do to secure the team captain spot," Marshall, 14, said. "So I tried to do those things."
Sure enough, Marshall was named team captain and led his team to the borough championship.
"It was cool because the last time that happened I had played with the team," Forrest said. "It's just good to be around soccer."
As King said, there is no one reason why families or students may be homeless. But for those students who have run away, Forrest said it is simply not the answer.
"If they have a family and a home to go to, I'd say, 'Go home,'" Forrest said. "To think you're independent and you can do all this on your own -- it's not true. Home is where it's at.
"There's always something better out there. The support you have from a family, that's more important."
Logan Tuttle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.