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Cambridge native gives back to community who supported him

Jonnie Wright of West Des Moines holds the cardboard sign he used while posing as a homeless man in Johnston and Ames. Wright did this as a way of repaying what the community has given to him during his journey to turn his life around. All donations Wright received were given to the Bethel Mission in Des Moines, along with a matching contribution of his own, for a total of $1,000. Photo by Whitney Sager
Jonnie Wright of West Des Moines holds the cardboard sign he used while posing as a homeless man in Johnston and Ames. Wright did this as a way of repaying what the community has given to him during his journey to turn his life around. All donations Wright received were given to the Bethel Mission in Des Moines, along with a matching contribution of his own, for a total of $1,000. Photo by Whitney Sager
To take on the look of a homeless person, Jonnie Wright went several days without shaving and showering. He also donned an old Iowa State University sweatshirt and a cardboard sign hung around his neck with audio cable. Photo courtesy of Jonnie Wright
To take on the look of a homeless person, Jonnie Wright went several days without shaving and showering. He also donned an old Iowa State University sweatshirt and a cardboard sign hung around his neck with audio cable. Photo courtesy of Jonnie Wright

Hopes others will be inspired to do the same

He was voted most likely to succeed by his 1983 Ballard High School graduating class, but at the time felt he was the exact opposite of that. Thirty years later, he has done a complete 180, turning his life around and living up to that expectation.

A troubled life

Jonnie Wright of West Des Moines grew up in Cambridge and was raised by his mother, grandmother and aunt.

“It was a loving but dysfunctional family,” Wright said.

He spent a lot of time as a youth putting on a charade for people to make them think he was happy. He tended to push people away, rather than letting them into his life. His teachers often told him he was loved and he mattered, but their kind words didn’t have any effect on him.

Throughout high school, Wright described himself as an under-achiever, but sought comfort in music and theater. He said he enjoyed the camaraderie among the students involved in those classes.

“Those people had a huge impact on my life,” he said.

After graduating from high school, Wright jumped around to a number of colleges, including Coe College, Iowa State University, Des Moines Area Community College and University of Northern Iowa. In 1987, he entered the field of radio broadcasting, but like with the colleges he attended, he jumped around from station to station. He struggled with depression and his weight, and was in and out of relationships. At one point in his life, he had lived at 33 different addresses.

“I thought I needed to change my environment, but I really needed to make changes internally,” Wright said.

A turning point

In 1990, his mother committed suicide, marking “a pivotal moment” in his life. Visiting the tree where his mother hung herself, Wright could see himself having the same fate. Realizing how his life could end if he continued his current way of living was the beginning of a slow process of change.

During that slow process, he found God and asked Him for help to turn his life around.

“Give me a path out and I will repay this,” Wright remembers telling God.

He started his own company, The Buyosphere, which helps businesses develop marketing and social media strategies and increase their sales. He also recently reconnected with his family - something he would have not done 10 years ago.

Improving his weight has also been a part of the changes. He has found it intriguing to experiment with his diet and weight, learning the effects certain foods and diets can have on a person’s body.

All this has been done while never forgetting the promise he made to God.

Repaying his debt

On Christmas Eve, Wright did something he has wanted to do for quite some time. Standing at an intersection along Merle Hay Road near the westbound I-80 ramp in Johnston, with temperatures in the teens, Wright posed as a homeless man. Dressed in an old Iowa State University sweatshirt with a cardboard sign hanging around his neck that read “Please help. Thank you,” passersby would have never guessed his Prius was parked a short distance away at the Quik Trip. All this was done with one mission in mind - to give back to the community that had given so much to him.

For every person who stopped and handed him money, gloves or food, Wright handed that individual an envelope. Inside each of the 50 envelopes was either a $10 or a $100 bill and a letter explaining his purpose and that, indeed, he was not a homeless person.

“Instead, I am here to give thanks for the many blessings in my life by paying them forward and honoring you and others who give,” Wright wrote in the letter. He went on to encourage those who donated to take the money in the envelope and use it how they best saw fit - “keep it, spend it, donate it, pay it forward, whatever your heart tells you to do,” he wrote.

He also explained that he was going to take all the donations he received, plus his own matching contribution, and give it to the Bethel Mission, an emergency shelter for men in Des Moines. He chose the Bethel Mission because his mother talked highly about it while he was growing up.

“If it was good enough for her, it’s good enough for me,” Wright said.

Wright was eventually told by an off-duty police officer that it was illegal to panhandle in Polk County. With 20 envelopes left to hand out, he headed north to the intersection of Duff Avenue and Lincoln Way in Ames to continue posing as a homeless person.

After four hours of standing at both locations, Wright had received $363.02, three pepperoni sandwiches, two doughnuts, one pack of M&Ms, one apple and one pair of gloves. On Christmas Day, Wright presented a $1,000 check, along with the food and gloves, to the Bethel Mission.

Since then, Wright’s stint as a homeless man has caused quite a stir in the media, with the story told by news stations and news publications as far away as California.

“It was never about staying anonymous or trying to bring attention to myself,” Wright said. Rather, it was about reaching out and finding something that touches people. He also hopes it will encourage others to give what they can to their community.

In a post made on his Facebook page, Wright wrote he felt everything from helpless and cold and ignored to proud and grateful and loved while he was standing at the intersections.

“It taught me a lot about myself in those four hours,” Wright said.

Re-balancing the past

Looking back at how much he has turned around his life during the past couple of years, Wright said he wants to live with very few regrets. He cannot change the past, “but I can re-balance it a bit.” He plans to apologize to those he hurt in the past, including people he stole from or who were the victims of his vandalism during his youth.

“I want to live a purpose-driven life and be a good shepherd for whatever days I have left on this Earth,” Wright said.

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