Personal Stories

powerful stories of growth from some of our inspiring friends

VEP Story – Mike Dempster


If you’ve stopped through our offices at 1011 Hull St. on a given day, you’ve probably run into Mike. If you didn’t pass him in the hallways, you may have run into him in front of our offices – he’s usually there in the mornings before we arrive.

Originally from Richmond, Mike grew up in the city’s east end. “I never really liked much about school – classmates, teacher, the schools themselves – anything. I actually failed the 3rd grade! When I was in junior high, I was hit by a car when I was riding my bike. I spent a fair amount of time in and out of the hospital recovering from my injuries, so much in fact that the school advanced me through the 8th grade without spending a day in class. When I was in 9th grade, bussing began, and with schools now becoming desegregated, it was something else new to get used to. Everybody had their own schools they went to up until that time, so it was a pretty big change.” Mike did ok in school, despite his lack of interest, but things began to slide around his junior year in high school. “I started using drugs and alcohol around the 10th grade, and when my parents found out, they sent me out to Fork Union military academy to begin my Junior year. I started to do better because of the rigid environment; more was expected of me, and they were always going to make sure they got it.” Having changed his mind about school, Mike enrolled himself in college after receiving his high school diploma from Fork Union. “I went down to Campbell University in Buies Creek, North Carolina. Though the rules stated that Campbell was a “dry” campus, I made sure I did my share of drinking, and actually my drinking picked up a bit while I was away at school. It seems as though I starting college majoring in data processing, but I soon exchanged it for girls and drinking.”

Mike decided after a year at Campbell that he wasn’t going to enroll in the following fall semester. “My dad was working for VEPCO at the time, and he offered me a job working in the Blue Ridge Mountains with him at a hydroelectric dam. I took the position, and operated cranes for them for just under 3 years – I loved that job. Working the cranes was a lot a fun, and I made great money. The recession hit us in 1981 pretty hard, and I was forced to make a career change. That’s when I joined the Navy.”

“I enlisted with the Navy in 1981 (it was actually on a Friday the 13th). I chose the Navy because drinking was a big part of my life then, and I figured I ought to get in with some drinking buddies that would at least provide me with some competition. I started out as a Seaman Recruit and Boatswain-Mate, 2nd class. It was my job to take care of the topside of the ship. Whether it was handling cargo, painting the ship, refueling or replenishing at sea, I was the guy. We were also involved in Operation: Desert Storm at the time. On August 5, 1991 my enlistment with the Navy came to an end, and so I made the decision to pursue something a little different. I joined the Merchant Marines in 1992, where I worked similar detail to what I had within the Navy. I was with the Merchant Marines for 15 years, and then in 2010 my contract with them ended as well. Taking inventory over where I had travelled while a seaman over the course of my career with both the Navy and Merchant Marines, I realized I had been to nearly 125 different countries and traveled around the world a total of 8 times!”

“I had saved almost all of the money I had made while working as a seaman. When you’re out on the water, your living expenses, food, and everything else you’d really want for are taken care of, so you (can) have a lot of bankable income. I and had big plans to fix up my house when I returned home. I wanted to make it everything I wanted it to be – new appliances, dress up the inside – really make it feel nice. Unfortunately, my brother absconded with the money that I had saved, and I wasn’t able to do anything I had planned with my house. Coupled with the loss of my father the year prior, the slide into my depression had been triggered. I had a very defeated outlook on everything because of my depression. I had become sober in August of 1989, and throughout all of this time of struggle, I was able to maintain my sobriety, and I still have to this day – but this time in particular was very difficult. I became suicidal during that period because I couldn’t pay my bills; my electricity was cut off, I couldn’t go back to sea because of stints that were put in my heart combined with a triple bypass. I can even remember calling 911 one day after considering suicide, thank goodness I had sold all of my guns to keep myself financially afloat in the months prior.”

Mike continued to battle his depression, and in June 2012, his home went into foreclosure. ”I got a decent check unemployment, and I really thought things were beginning to turn around. I thought for sure at this point that the house and the car were becoming possibilities again. I ended up letting my brother borrow money from me again, and once again, I ended up in a position with insufficient funds for my needs. After my house was foreclosed on, I committed myself to the VA and stayed about 2 weeks in their psychiatric ward, and then went to respice for about 4 weeks. I got my medications straight and got my wits about me, and they found me a place at Safe Haven. I’ve been staying there ever since.”

One day during an event at the VA hospital, Mike ran into Wes Suitt, executive director of the VEP program here at River City. “Before I met Wes, I had given up hope for finding a job. He extended an invitation for me to come to River City’s VEP program, and told me they would get me a job, so here I am. I want work. I don’t want to collect welfare or unemployment. I’ve put in my paperwork for disability through the VA, but my real desire is to be able to stand on my own feet again. I come here every day because I get the support I need. If I need something, they try and help me get it. They helped me get my suit cleaned, got me a decent pair of shoes for interviews. They just support me in a general way – and there are other programs that River City offers that I’ve been looking into, like the Relapse Prevention, and their Anger Management programs.” Though there are elements to the groups that Mike can certainly benefit from, his story of maintaining sobriety throughout his struggles are an inspiration for many, and he has maintained an active role in local 12-step meetings for years.

Mike’s plan is to get a job, and to continue regularly attending 12 step meetings. “I’ll stay at Safe Haven for now so that I can save up to get a place.” says Mike. Until then, he’s here, every day, putting in an average of 40 applications a week, and making sure there’s always a fresh pot of coffee for everyone in the office. Thanks Mike!