Just getting started

College of William and Mary student Daniel Reichwein turns a life of adversity into a life of service

Daniel Reichwein’s life story reads a bit like the screenplay of an overwrought Hollywood drama—the lows too low to be believed; the redemption a little too improbable to accept. That his story sounds like fiction is not lost on Reichwein, though. The details don’t add up to him, either.

“‘Miracle’ is the only way I can describe how I became the person I am now,” he says. “Growing up, everything I learned, I learned from a world of neglect, hatred, self-gratification, exploitation, misery, and isolation.”

Service is often seen as a way of helping others turn their lives around. For Reichwein, however, discovering the power of helping others is what saved his own life when it seemed that nothing could.

A bleak beginning

Reichwein’s parents were both drug dealers and were arrested in a raid when Reichwein was young, which ushered him into the foster care system. Things there, it turned out, would not be much better. He ended up with an adoptive family he describes as “negligent and hateful,” but his own description says less about that experience than the bare, harsh facts. Reichwein’s adoptive family ran a puppy mill, and he was put to work digging graves for dogs that died or wouldn’t sell when he was only in the eighth grade.

During this horrific childhood, Reichwein was the victim of both physical and sexual abuse, though perhaps the worst thing about his life was the fact that no one seemed to care what happened to him. At the age of 16, he attempted suicide.

“It was the loneliest I’ve ever felt,” he says, “when the 16-year-old me was ready to give up on life, tried, and failed—and nobody even noticed.”

The darkness before dawn

During his period of homelessness, Reichwein lived for a while in a tent he referred to as his “woodland cottage.” He even commuted to school from the tent while beginning his associate’s degree

Reichwein did have an immense determination despite the horrible odds he was given at birth—he attempted college once, dropped out, and then tried again at age 21. The second try didn’t take, either, unfortunately. Undiagnosed bipolar disorder kept him from finishing school, and Reichwein soon found himself homeless. He spent half of his twenties bouncing between shelters, the streets, and jail.

Even homelessness and the indignities that accompany it couldn’t bring him down.

“Failure strengthens us, it teaches us, and it’s what enables us to change,” he says. “When I became homeless is when I really started growing up. From all that time being in the shelters, soup kitchen lines, shower lines, the street, the alleys, the bus stops, the parks, and the woods, I began to empathize with the struggles of others. The world was not mine. I didn’t matter much.”

Gaining that sense of humility transformed Reichwein’s life goals—which were previously focused exclusively on wealth and personal glory—into something he could actually feel a passion for. He began spending his time helping not only himself, but the people around him, find a better life.

“I changed an old, homeless man’s life in a weekend by helping him find a job,” Reichwein says. “I talked my street friend out of selling his prescription drugs for money. I visited a friend I made in a shelter while he was in the hospital. And I knew I had made a difference.”

A new purpose

With the help of a social worker, he worked his way out of homelessness and enrolled in a community college, earning an associate’s degree in a year—still living, for part of that year, in a tent.

Now, against all odds, he is set to earn a bachelor’s degree in Public Policy and Business from the prestigious College of William and Mary in May 2015.

That Reichwein has managed to overcome all his obstacles and rise to achieve such success says less about him, however, than his continued dedication to serving others. He has worked, during his time at William and Mary, in the college’s Office of Community Engagement. He has mentored former felons for the United Way. He has helped unemployed people train for jobs at D.C. Central Kitchen in Washington.

Reichwein (second from right) attends a United Way Christmas dinner

In short, he has made the miracle that is his life into a quest to help build a similar life for the people around him. Despite all that, Reichwein sees plenty of room to keep growing and keep improving.

“The best of me is yet to come,” he says. “I’m just getting started.”

Daniel Reichwein is an alumnus of the Sullivan Foundation Service and Social Entrepreneurship Program’s 2013 Fall Retreat Weekend.

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