How Jesse Dalla Riva became a guiding light
Editor’s note: This story is reprinted from the April issue of GCU Magazine. To view the digital version of the magazine, click here.
Story by Rick Vacek
Photos by Ralph Freso
Just talking about what it will be like to watch the recipient of that full ride, Jesse Dalla Riva, accept his diploma at commencement Thursday reduces the people closest to him to tears.
“He’s just worked so hard for it,” said his wife, Blake, struggling to get the words through the catch in her throat. “It will be a real good accomplishment. But we’re also seeing how God works through him and in him.”
Pam Morrison, Community Relationship Officer for the Phoenix Rescue Mission and the woman Blake calls “like a spiritual mother for both of us,” also had to compose herself before sharing her thoughts.
“This opportunity for him changed the tomorrows for his family, truly,” she said. “He never thought, because of his past, that he would ever get an opportunity like the one he’s had from GCU.”
Their feelings are understandable. After all, it’s not often that a graduate’s story starts in a detox center.
That’s where Dalla Riva was five years ago, trying to find the strength to turn away from a life of drugs, prison and homelessness. Blake was a counselor there and remembers how he had “scabs all over his face … his thoughts were all over the place, scattered,” so she encouraged him by sharing how she felt during her own battles with addiction.
“It was like how I felt,” Jesse said. “I’d never heard it put that way before.”
Blake referred him to Phoenix Rescue, which brings back men from the dark side by helping them get sober, feeding them, teaching them God’s word and training them to hold a job. He soon committed his life to Christ and started working at the mission, and a short time later he heard about the scholarship GCU was offering.
Morrison was charged with developing the rubric for how a committee would make its selection, and Dalla Riva’s essay stood out. But his transformation was just beginning.
As he was preparing to move into Prescott Hall, the story about his scholarship was published in a newsletter distributed to the detox center. In it, he credited Blake’s message for his turnaround.
Blake didn’t see it but her mother did, and Blake promptly decided to go to Phoenix Rescue to visit Jesse, whom she hadn’t seen for a year and a half. “She wanted to encourage me because she knows that’s a hard transition for an addict,” he said.
But Jesse soon found plenty of support on campus, too.
“I was very nervous about the whole experience, just being in this arrangement,” he said. “I’d come from a place where everyone was recovering, and here I didn’t know what to expect.
“But I was pleasantly surprised to find that I didn’t see any issues that I really needed to be nervous about. My roommate was nice, the people were nice, the students were nice. I didn’t see anyone being crazy or acting crazy. I’ve even had people come up to me and tell me if I needed any help to reach out to them.”
The welcoming feelings extended to the classroom. Jesse and Blake were married shortly after they started dating, and when Blake was pregnant with their son, Jaxon, the women in Denise Krupp’s group counseling class (Jesse was the only guy) threw a surprise baby shower for him. “I’d never had anyone really do anything like that for me, take special interest in me,” he said.
Krupp, who also does addiction counseling, had reached out to Dalla Riva when he arrived, urging him to let her know if he needed anything. She didn’t know what to expect but found a quiet, introspective – and talented – young man.
“His work is just amazing,” she said. “I’m so grateful GCU gave him a shot. I don’t doubt for a minute that God has big plans for him.”
Now Blake is expecting their second child, and Jesse is wrapping up an extraordinary four years in which he has accumulated a 3.8 GPA toward his degree in Counseling with an Emphasis in Substance Abuse Disorders while working full time at Phoenix Rescue Mission and fulfilling his duties at home as well. “Great father, wonderful husband,” Blake said.
His job is as demanding as his classroom regimen. As the Solutions Supervisor, he manages five employees in the RAP (Rescue, Assess, Place) and Solutions (work re-entry) programs and also does case management for medical, mental health, legal, medication and other extraneous services provided to clients. Morrison thinks he’ll be the Program Director someday.
“He’s brilliant,” she said. “He picked up things so quickly and easily. But he also has a real heart for this community and serves with a great deal of compassion.
“Who he was helped bring him to where he is today,” she added, “but it’s not who he is.”
And who is Jesse Dalla Riva? One grateful guy, that’s who. A guy who is amazed by what God can do when you let Him in.
“It’s really been a shocking thing because I used to be a total nobody,” he said. “No one knew who I was. I was an outcast of society. And now I’ve accomplished all these things through the power of God. It’s just been a great experience every day.”
Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or [email protected].
Arizona Republic: He was homeless, on heroin and wanted to die. Then, he was rescued.