Paying it Forward

By Robert Renteria

My father, cousins and uncles were all either heroin addicts, alcoholics or drug dealers. As a child growing up in a dysfunctional and abusive environment, this was my reality, my normal, my world.

I grew up in an impoverished East LA barrio. My family was abandoned by my drug- and alcohol-addicted father. At the age of six, I was involved in a carnival accident that resulted in a serious head trauma and three years of rehabilitation to recover my motor skills.

By the time I was in junior high school, I was already drinking and smoking pot. After my sophomore year in high school, I dropped out and started both using and selling cocaine, as well as drinking myself to sleep at night. I thought I would somehow find the answer to my pain and fear at the bottom of a whisky bottle.

I went from one dead-end job to another. I was stabbed, and someone tried to shoot me. I started looking for love in all the wrong places and soon found myself involved with an even more dysfunctional family – a gang. By this time, I was living on the streets, selling drugs, robbing houses and stealing women’s purses just to feed my habits. I was on a path to 25 years to life behind cold metal bars, living in a six-by-nine cell in a federal penitentiary or, worse yet, being buried six feet under.

My biological father died in a halfway house on skid row when I was 17 years old. He died a hobo, a bum. He died a heroin addict and an alcoholic with nothing to his name but a pile of bills and a bunch of empty bottles of booze in the trash.

I was about 20 years old when I had made a drug deal that went bad. I told myself that if God let me live, I would sin no more. You see, what I learned from experience was many people believe you can control drugs and control alcohol; but in reality, they will take control of you – no matter what. My father’s death and my own bad decisions and choices also taught me that if you decide to play with the devil, you’re going to get burned. And I was burning.

I decided to join the military. It was the best decision of my life because it not only changed my life, but it saved my life. The military made me a man – a better man. I am proud to say I honorably served in the US Army as a noncommissioned officer for over seven years.

After discharge from the military, I searched for a job where I could prove myself. I talked my way into a position with a commercial laundry management and sales company and eventually became a corporate vice president of a publicly-traded company listed on the New York Stock Exchange. I later opened my own successful business, only to realize that the two greatest days in life are the day you are born and the day you realize why you were born.

With this realization, I decided it was time for me to pay it forward. I wanted to do something that would help make a difference – a contribution to mankind. We have money for wars, but can’t feed the poor. We have children, teenagers and adults wandering around, lost in a culture of darkness. I wanted to do something about it.

I decided to write a book that would provide teaching tools to help others avoid the detours I had made in my life, a road map of sorts that would help children and adults make better life choices.

In April 2006, I partnered with writer and publisher, Corey Michael Blake. I am proud to say that today our books, From the Barrio to the Board Room, Mi Barrio and Little Barrio are now being used across America and in 24 countries around the world. We are forming our leaders of tomorrow by helping them help others discover their true identities, establish core values, set goals, prioritize education and strive to reach their full potential.

Our books are about hopes and dreams. In them, I share with readers there is always a way and they are not alone. Your pain, my pain, our pain is not in vain – the greater the struggle, the greater the victory.

The books are not just about my story. What I mean by that is they are your story, they are our story; they are the stories of people who have come from a difficult place, made many sacrifices and did whatever was necessary to come out clean on the other side.

My advice to anyone reading this article is, “Don’t let where you came from dictate who you are. Rather, let it be a part of who you become.” I am just an ordinary man who decided to do something extraordinary, and I am here to tell you there is something extraordinary inside each of you.

The fact of the matter is this moment is proof that dreams do come true and dreams are alive and well right here and right now!

Robert Renteria has dedicated his life to helping teens and adults recover from the same substance abuse, pain, distress and negative influences he lived with as a young adult. His books, written with Corey Michael Blake, From the Barrio to the Board Room, Mi Barrio and Little Barrio, are being used around the world to help people of all ages, races, religions and economic backgrounds. For more information, visit his website at

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