A former soldier who overcame drug addiction and homelessness is among the First Lady’s special guests tonight for President Trump’s 3rd State of the Union address.
Army veteran Tony Rankins’ life looks a lot different today than it did in the years following his exit from service. After leaving the military, he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and became addicted to drugs. He lost his job and family, served several prison sentences, and ended up living out of his car, according to a White House press release.
Rankins’ story then pivoted to one of hope after getting connected to a social impact company called R Investments. The Denver-based firm trained Rankins in carpentry, painting, brick work, and other construction trades. Now, he works in an Opportunity Zone in Cincinnati, Ohio, which led to a new career and a family reunion.
Taking a chance on himself
Rankins describes the moment he decided to take a chance on a new beginning after seeing R Investments renovating a building he was parked across from.
“Homeless, living in my car with no gas, no job prospects, a loud voice inside said to go talk to them,” Rankins described. “I walked over and asked them for a job.”
R Investments gave Rankins a couple of tasks to see what his skill levels were, starting him as an electrician that day. And as soon as they found out he was homeless, gave him housing.
“But they did not embarrass me. They helped me up. I was homeless, and they took me off the streets, gave me a place to stay and provided me with a job. They gave an opportunity to rebuild my life,” he said.
Since then, the company has enhanced his skills through hands-on training, teaching him various trades including roofing, flooring, plumbing, and even working with marble and granite.
“It is an incredible feeling learning things I never thought about doing,” Rankins said. “Now I can breathe.”
Rising to the occasion
Travis Steffens, CEO of R Investments, says his company of 14 years focuses “on engaging the country in conscientious capitalism,” which gives people like Rankins a chance to heal and rebuild. It’s comprised of six companies encompassing a global mission of purchasing distressed apartments, hotels, and providing quality and affordable housing in Opportunity Zones. The locations are across the U.S, including Cincinnati and Nashville, Indianapolis, St. Louis, Phoenix, Denver, and Orlando.
With the help of the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, Steffens said he is able to focus even more on, “taking people off the streets and out of the penial system, housing them, giving them the tools for the trade, training them, and empowering them long term and have them employed within (R Investments) enterprises.”
“(It’s) not about handouts, but empowerment,” Steffens said. “(Businesses) don’t have to be a charity to make a difference — we don’t need to separate the private sector from charities because we can’t change people’s lives if they think they are a charity case.”
Invite from the White House
Recently, Ashley Bell, regional administrator of the Small Business Administration and White House Policy Advisor for Entrepreneurship & Innovation, reached out to businesses in Opportunity Zones asking for biographies of individuals being helped. Steffens shared Rankins’ story and how he, “is now part of the ‘band of brothers’” within the company.
Tonight, Rankins will join a small group of distinguished guests being celebrated by First Lady Melania Trump at this evening’s State of the Union.
“It is the greatest reward after being raised in a family to serve people and serve the country,” Steffens added. “(It is) amazing to watch people rise to the occasion if they know someone is behind them.”
When the Cincinnati-native found out he would be attending the State of the Union, Rankins described his initial reaction as “disbelief and shock.” After being flown out to DC, he spent Monday touring the White House and taking pictures. He also was able to spend time with one of his daughters who is now a teacher living in Virginia.
Through his current whirlwind of excitement surrounding this week’s itinerary, Rankins has a message for fellow veterans and anyone else who is struggling to know there is hope.
“Not to give up — cause there are people that will help, like R Investments. There is a better way, it is going to happen. There is hope.”