If you’ve ever been to our drop-in center, you’ve likely met Austen Tibbetts-Priester (his nickname is “ATP”). If he knows you, you’ve probably been greeted by his big hugs, sweet grin, and contagious laughter. He’s courageous and kind, growing in boldness and wisdom.
Austen is going to be our speaker at graduation this year. He’s one of Outreach’s twenty seven graduates. Last week he sat on a youth-led panel training the Outreach staff. He’s going to college and has had his own apartment for three years. ATP has been around Outreach since he was 17. Now, he’s becoming one of our key leaders, but it hasn’t always been this way.
Austen sat down with me to map his life. We mapped significant moments, months categorized by unhealthy relationships, years he spent mostly high and doesn’t remember, days spent in jail, books that changed his trajectory, conversations that empowered him, highs and lows, and the differences in his prayers between now and then. As he has walked with God and Outreach, he admits that it’s obvious his highs keep getting higher and his lows don’t get so low anymore.
For the last seven years, Austen has walked with Outreach case managers, with varying degrees of closeness at different times. “They’ve each contributed to me growing up” he says of the men he calls “friend, brother, strict parent, father figure, and mentor”. He says they listened to him, helped motivate him, called him out on his wrong doings, and supported him in every decision.
ATP started running away from home when he was 15. He says he was tired of getting kicked out and didn’t see the point in being home if no one wanted him there. His sister had run away, so when he saw her after school one day he didn’t go home for a few months. He says he smoked a lot, ran the streets, and played video games. Around the time he was 17, he started coming to Outreach, though only nominally. He would stop in for breakfast but not much more.
When he turned 18, Austen received some life-altering news. He tested positive for HIV. He says he was overcome by sadness. ATP recounts that he thought maybe he run from his own sorrow. He took off on his bike, thinking he would pedal to California and figure the rest out later. He made it to St. Louis before coming back to Indiana. Those days on the bike changed him though. It was the beginning of a real relationship with God. “I didn’t do anything but talk to God”, he said, “asking questions and asking God to put me on the path He wanted me on.”
His life didn’t turn completely around right there though. Years of struggle followed. He lived in an abandoned house, invested everything in an unhealthy relationship, went to jail, lost an apartment, violated probation, went back to jail, started school and dropped out. He was even kicked out of Outreach for a while.
“My life is on His time, not mine,” he says. He knows God’s in it–all of it. Those were the same years he stopped stealing and quit smoking pot. Those were the years he spent taking his anger to God, trying to figure out how to live peacefully in a violent world.
Sometime around 21, Austen says he realized, “My life sucks, and I need to do something to make it better.” He says that it was triggered, at least in part, when he moved into an apartment across town. The people he had always hung out with weren’t coming over or calling to chat. It was lonely, but he also realized that most of his friends weren’t in the same head space he was. They weren’t ready to fight for a different life.
Austen says this is when his motivation was born. He spent his days reading and watching motivational videos he found on YouTube. He says the best ones are the ones the pyramid schemes put out. I suspect he also played his fair share of video games.
It was during that time that Anthony (Drop-In Center Coordinator at Outreach) confronted him (not for this first time) about finishing high school. He re-enrolled but skipped a lot of days. The social worker at his school went to college with Anthony Dumas though, so if Austen missed too many days she’d give Anthony a call. Anthony would find Austen and convince him to keep going. “I wouldn’t have graduated if it weren’t for Dumas.” The hardest part for him was just getting up and going. He says he did it because he was tired of being broke, tired of not finishing, tired of sitting around, and tired of being bored. It took him six months to graduate.
Of course, there’s still days where he’d rather do nothing, but he’s pursuing change. He says he’s “ready to work on himself instead of anybody else.” He dreams of living in Colorado, owning acreage, getting his doctorate in psychology, and working at a version of Outreach. His continuous prayer is to understand more of God and the world.
Austen and I reflected on the steady presence Outreach has been in his life. He says Outreach is where he learned to process his emotions and story. “I used to be a bottler…to keep things down…I don’t get as angry anymore though. I’ve learned to let go of what I can’t control.” The staff there have spent hundreds of hours in conversation with him, talking about inadequacy, depression, relationships, Jesus, and every other topic under the sun. They’re his people. Austen has changed them as much as they’ve changed him.
Article by: Kadilyn Knief