In my semi-regular column for saratoga living, I’ve had the opportunity to introduce you to a number of men and women who have struggled with (and beaten!) homelessness in Saratoga Springs. (For the uninitiated, meet Jimmy, Amanda, Kevin and Grace.) I recently sat down with Donny Petersimes, who I’m positive many Saratogians will be familiar with. Despite a rough upbringing and decade on the streets, Donny’s found a home in the Spa City—and is one of the kindest people you’ll ever get the chance to meet. Recently, over lunch, I interviewed Donny for an hour and a half, sharing some laughs and a few tears. Here’s his powerful story.
Although Donny was born in Galesburg, IL, he spent the majority of his childhood in the Deep South, growing up in poverty, with his siblings, mother and abusive father. One house the family lived in in Arkansas had no windows or running water. Times were tough, and little could drown out the sound of his parents constant fighting, which escalated over time. It soon became too much for his mother to bear, and she took her kids and moved to Texas. But his father found out where they were living, and while his mother was at work one day, broke in and robbed her of everything she owned and left town. Upon returning home and finding out what happened, Donny’s mother suffered a nervous breakdown and had no choice but to place her children in the South Texas Children’s Home, a Christian-based living facility that offered shelter and schooling to children from broken homes. Donny, now ten years old, and his siblings were scattered, living in cabins with other kids in the same situation. It was depressing, to say the least. “I got into a lot of fights,” Donny says. “We were rough kids that all came from tough situations.”
The children’s home may’ve not been an ideal place to grow up, but it wasn’t altogether bad either. It offered Donny the opportunity to explore some of his interests. He learned to play the guitar and was a member of the horse club. He lights up describing the home’s house-parent: She taught him how to cook and instilled in him morals. At the age of 17, however, Donny had grown tired of the routine and dropped out of school. By the time he turned 18, he’d returned to Illinois with a pregnant wife in tow. As he was starting his new life with his new family, Donny received some devastating news: His best friend, Karl, had been killed in an accident. “He was my best friend in the whole wide world, and I just didn’t know how to handle it,” remembers Donny. “I started drinking heavily to the point where I just didn’t care about my life [anymore].” So much so that he left his wife and newborn son there and made his way back to Texas.
Donny spent the next several years bouncing around Texas, playing in bands and working on oil rigs. He worked hard and partied even harder. Many years passed, and eventually, Donny’s hard living caught up with him: He was arrested for drug possession, an offense that carried a two-year prison sentence in Texas. And then, just before Donny went to jail, he got news from Illinois that his son, now grown and with a family of his own, had lost his own newborn baby in an accident. The authorities in Texas allowed Donny to attend his grandson’s funeral in Illinois, and after the ceremony, his son insisted that Donny go visit an ex-girlfriend that he hadn’t seen for more than a decade. He honored his son’s wishes, and upon visiting her, learned that he’d fathered a daughter. Jaymi Lynn was 12 years old the day she met her father for the first time. But soon after their first meeting, Donny had to return to Texas to serve his two-year prison sentence.
While in jail, Donny regularly exchanged letters with his daughter and was also working on a fairy tale he planned to present to her when he was released. But prison wasn’t easy, and soon, his stationery, stamps and fairy tale were stolen. Without any way of getting them back, he focused his energy on obtaining his GED, excelling in the program and eventually being asked to tutor his fellow prisoners. Then, one day, when he was returning from class to his cell, he found a group of men waiting for him. One, clearly the “leader” of the group, handed Donny back his stolen fairy tale and told him, in exchange for it, he had to start writing letters to their loved ones since many of them couldn’t read or write. They “paid” Donny in stationery, stamps and pens. He found it amusing that women all over the country were receiving love letters that he’d written them!
Upon being released from prison, Donny traveled northeastward to Maine. There, he cared for his mother, who was dying of terminal cancer. (Despite being given just six months to live, she ended up living for a little more than three years.) Also, Donny kept in touch with his daughter, Jaymi Lynn, mailing her the fairy tale he’d written her in prison. She loved it. After his mother died, Donny moved to the Rutland, VT, area to work in construction. While there, he started partying and drinking heavily again. Although Donny stayed in touch with his daughter, he soon fell off her radar. “I was too embarrassed about who I was and what I was, and I didn’t have anything to offer [Jaymi Lynn],” he says. What had been a regular correspondence quickly became an occasional phone call. To make matters worse, his boss decided to change careers, leaving Donny without a job or a place to live in Vermont. He hitched a ride with a friend to the Salvation Army in Albany.
Finding his way to the Capital Region turned out to be one of the smartest moves of Donny’s life. At Albany’s Salvation Army, he completed a six-month program and soon began living with a friend in his parents’ basement in Saratoga. Although he’d been sober for six months, it didn’t last, and Donny ended up on the streets here. He spent the next decade homeless in Saratoga. He slept anywhere he could find and drank heavily. “All I cared about was vodka at that point,” says Donny. “I was drinking a gallon a day, and when I got down to about a half-gallon, I’d start to panic, because I didn’t know where the next one was coming from.” He played guitar on the streets, finding that most locals were nice and threw money into his guitar case. Donny lived on the streets long before Saratoga even had a Code Blue emergency shelter; he remembers the freezing-cold temperatures and feeling as though it was impossible to get his life back together. Donny knew all of the other homeless people, and although he mostly kept to himself, he was happy to stand up for those in need. He spent his whole life fighting, and he was well known for it on the streets.
When Code Blue Saratoga opened in 2013, Donny ventured in, looking for warmth and a meal. The volunteers there were friendly and took an interest in him. They tried convincing him to go to rehab—and as he notes, they were “relentless” in their efforts. He eventually caved. His first attempt at rehab lasted just 100 days. But Code Blue’s volunteers refused to give up on him. During his second stint, something clicked, and he’s been sober since May 12, 2016.
There are so many people that Donny credits with helping him along the way: Shelters of Saratoga, Code Blue’s volunteers, his doctor and his recovery group are among them. Donny realized that he needed a plan to stay sober and be strong enough to stick with it. “It’s everything that I wasn’t doing that was the problem, and I didn’t realize that until I met a very good friend in my recovery group,” says Donny. “She’s brilliant, and I can’t think of her without choking up.” After Donny’s successful stay in rehab, he lived at Shelters of Saratoga for eight months. He now lives in his own apartment, and although he suffers from Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (or COPD), he says he’s feeling pretty good.
Once he got sober, Donny also reunited with his daughter. “Jaymi Lynn is the pride of my life,” he says, with tears welling in his eyes. They’ve developed a beautiful relationship, and they talk on the phone almost every day. He had the opportunity to visit her in Illinois last Christmas, and for the first time, he was able to play guitar for her. (Sadly, though, Donny’s son—who’d put him on the path to reconnect with his long-lost daughter all those years ago—unexpectedly passed away last winter. His son had never gotten over the death of his own child and had battled his own addictions.)
Right before we wrapped up our lunch meeting, Donny looked at me and said, flashing me his infectious smile: “I love Saratoga. I don’t think I could’ve done this in any other town. More than anything, I’m trying to erase the stigma that’s placed on the homeless humans in this community, because when I see them, I see some of my story in each and every one of them.” Donny is such a special person. He’s overcome the unimaginable, rekindled a beautiful relationship with his daughter, and is a gentle and giving soul. I root for Donny’s continued sobriety, and I’m so grateful for the opportunity to know him.