His name is Riley Mickles. He lived in his 2001 Chevy Blazer with a rusted door that hung precariously from the frame by a bungee cord. He had a blanket in the back but still needed to wear several layers of clothes because the winter wind would whistle through the sagging door and freeze him.
He took drugs and alcohol to forget about it all, especially the difficult family life he left at 18 after high school graduation.
His Blazer was parked in a suburban Chicago Dunkin’ Donuts, where he worked. His boss asked about his hygiene, and Mickles told him. He was allowed to clean up in the bathroom.
He couldn’t sleep. It was so cold the windshield was a block of ice, and his fingers were numb. He asked God why He was doing this to him. He started hearing a voice, telling him to call his aunt. He thought he was going crazy and ignored it.
“That night I planned to commit suicide. I had no family or friends. I didn’t have anything,” he said. “I planned to drive the car really fast until I crashed.
“It would not start.”
That same night, his aunt showed up in the lot, he said. He went to her house and slept for 1 ½ days.
Fast forward more than three years, when Riley Mickles sent this April email:
My name is Riley Mickles, and I recently received the National Society of Collegiate Scholars membership.
Against all odds, Mickles is an online student at Grand Canyon University, and a scholar of the top 20%.
A broken-hearted aunt helps
Cindi Starek found out he was living in his car. “I’m coming to get you,” she said.
Inside the Blazer she saw a very lost young man. The Blazer wasn’t running, so her husband had it towed.
“He was down and out. People picked on him, but he is such a good kid. It broke my heart,” Starek said.
He hadn’t eaten much and was getting food from the food bank. But, “He refused my charity. He said he would make sure he paid me back, and he did. Lo and behold, 48 hours later he’d tell me, ‘Here is the food you gave me.’”
But she had rules. Mickles wasn’t used to that and left after two weeks, finding himself back on the streets.
He lived in a warehouse for a few months with no mattress.
But then Mickles started to read the Bible, what he began to see as “God’s instruction in my head to better my life,” the one that sticks with him: “Know Me.”
He quit the drugs and invited friends to join him to read the Bible. Not everyone understood. Sometimes he was called a “Jesus freak.”
The new life of Riley
Mickles discovered Parkview Christian Church in a neighboring suburb of Orland Park on Easter Sunday 2021.
“This is amazing,” he said.
He found inspiration there and began to help the youth at the church. He got baptized. He started to realize people cared about him.
“Every day I was thinking Jesus saved me, He gave me the opportunity to meet new people. Jesus pushed His way into my life when my mind was telling me I am crazy,” he said. “It was Jesus finding me instead of me finding Jesus.”
By the next month, he had signed up for online classes at GCU. He wanted to make something of himself in the business world. But after telling his story, a University admissions counselor told him about Christian Studies.
It sounded perfect, and he wants to be a youth pastor someday. He’s into his seventh course, taking one or two when he can afford them while working his full-time job at Southside Collision.
Mickles said GCU professors such as Dr. Scott Hovater, who called him a “great student,” guided him in his new life.
But he’s shown his heart in Chicago.
Every weekend he joins the nonprofit All God’s People in Chicago to distribute food, clothes, diapers, deodorant and his personal favorite, mouthwash, to those in need. He remembers the bad taste in his mouth.
“I was homeless. I feel like it is my duty to give back,” he said.
Yet he still found time to become an NSCS scholar with stellar grades and squirreled away $10,000 for a house down payment.
In September 2022, he bought a 900 square foot home in Mattson, Illinois. His friends bought him household items, and he mined the used stores for other things. He got a roommate to share expenses.
Mickles has people over for prayer and to share testimonials, and it’s not in a warehouse. He can tell his story of Blazer living to homeowner, from frying doughnuts to a potential college graduate, if all goes well in the next three years.
My name is Riley Mickles ...
“I want people to see that no matter where you come from, no matter what your battle is, you can accomplish anything.”
Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-6764.