Most Inspiring Person of 2010

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Al Barsema

In spiritual terms, a mountaintop experience is usually equated with divinely inspired epiphany and often results in significant life change. But when Al Barsema found himself living out that metaphor, it was for all the wrong reasons.


“I used to go up to mountain ledge to drink and I drove up there one day with every intention of driving off,” Barsema told Encore Careers.

Living in Alaska at the time, Barsema fought the demons of alcoholism tooth and nail until coming to a final decision: end it all or find true purpose. After an encounter with God on that mountain ledge, he started the long journey to recovery and a productive existence.

So 20 years later, when a homeless man came banging on the door at his construction company in Rockford, Illinois, Barsema was compelled to do something unexpected. He got involved.

With nothing more than a paid assistant, a barely functioning coffee pot and a dozen donuts, Barsema opened The Carpenter’s Place, a faith-based homeless outreach. When eight “chronically homeless” walked through the door that first day, Barsema looked at his helper and asked, “They’re here. Now what do we do?”

Another 10 years has passed and Barsema’s construction company is a distant memory. Instead, he spends all of his time devoted to the nonprofit organization that has served an approximate 10,000 people and helped an average of 300 people a year gain stable housing—most of which are also now employed.

“We find that we can help individuals get on the first rung of the ladder and they gain their self-esteem back,” Barsema said. “They gain their motivation to progress further.”

Barsema has also created Community Collaboration, a group that takes the systems he has created over time and shares them with other outreach centers. In fact, over 140 agencies in five states use his tools and have collectively helped 80,000 people get off the streets.

“I don’t do anything amazing or astounding,” Barsema said. “I’m just an average Joe who was a construction worker. But what I do is take folks that are really good at designing databases or really good at case management or really good at addiction and health stuff and put them together and let them do their thing.”

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