Paying It Forward: Area Foundation Helps Hamilton Barton Go From Homeless Addict To CEO  

By Hernán Rozemberg

SAN ANTONIO — Sounds like a made-for-TV underdog success story.

Yet this is no fictional tale of redemption. It’s the actual life of Hamilton Barton, who went from homeless addict living on the streets to now being blessed as a committed family man at home and sitting behind his CEO desk at work.

He’s got himself to credit for turning around his personal life – on the professional side, however, he doesn’t think he could’ve made the right moves in climbing up the ladder had it not been for the learning and training he received through the San Antonio Area Foundation.

“Had it not been for all that knowledge I gained at the Area Foundation, I think there would be someone different in my chair today,” affirmed Barton, 52. “That training has had a profound impact on my career.”

Barton is CEO of Pay It Forward, a nonprofit agency based at Haven for Hope, providing sober-living dormitories and recovery services for addicts who have completed treatment programs at the homeless rehabilitation campus.

It’s a poignant time to reflect on this type of work, given that October is National Youth Substance Use Prevention Month.

It has not been a smooth road for Barton to get to where he is today.

Born in Corpus Christi, his parents divorced when he was a young child and he ended up living in various parts of Texas, including the Rio Grande Valley and San Antonio. Severe family dysfunctionality led him to drop out of high school just three months away from graduation. His academic career stagnated about a year later, completing his GED and then enrolling at San Antonio College – he took some basic courses, but he failed them all and once again dropped out.

He embarked on what seemed like an all-out self-sabotage of his life and career. There were ups and downs – moments when it seemed he was getting it together and making something of himself, taking on various jobs and even rising to regional manager of a telecommunications company.

But then things took a definite nosedive following his first wife’s death, taking up heavy drinking and becoming addicted to pain medications – all leading to his second marriage going down the tubes.

His substance abuse intensified, and he ended up losing a construction business he had started, followed by his house and car. His own children turned their back on him.

Barton ended up homeless on the streets for more than a year before he concluded it was then or never to turn his life around once and for all.

He had previously tried a treatment program but, just like his school life, he had soon quit it. This time it would be different. He began a different program and stuck with it, then moved into an Oxford House recovery home – drug-free environments where residents are required to work and contribute to paying bills.

His father, a former alcoholic himself who had become a lawyer after two decades sober, boosted Barton’s recovery effort by offering him a job at his firm.

With steadier footing in the employment end, he was able to dedicate more time toward improving his personal life as well. At his recovery home, fellow residents began to gravitate toward him as an organizer and problem-solver. They soon elected him chapter chair.

That move proved to be the genesis of his commitment toward servant leadership. It also helped that moves like becoming a paralegal further built his confidence. Given his personal experience with addiction and homelessness, he was recommended for a board seat at Pay It Forward.

Problem was, he had no idea going into it what a board member was actually supposed to be and what were the rules of the road.

That’s how he made his initial connection with the Area Foundation, after he learned about its plethora of professional development training opportunities particularly created for nonprofits – such as Board Boot Camp.

“Previous to that, I didn’t have any tools in the toolbox, so it gave me all I needed in terms of board participation,” Barton recalled. “It really schooled me on responsibilities and how to implement them – I would’ve probably made a lot of bad decisions without that boot camp!”

That experience would turn out to be just the first of three leadership development programs Barton completed through the Area Foundation.

And he kept climbing up the ladder at Pay It Forward. After completing Board Boot Camp, he was chosen as the chairman of the board of directors. Quite the accomplishment given his humble beginnings – yet he was not done.

When the agency’s CEO decided to leave, she led an internal effort to have Barton be her successor. It was a challenge he did not hesitate to take on, yet, as with his board experience, he knew he would need training as an executive.

So, he turned to the Area Foundation again. He completed the Nonprofit Management Certification Course to solidify his fundraising and staff leadership skills.

Ever the believer in lifelong learning and wanting to further improve his leadership role, he then signed up for the HOLT Values-Based Leadership Fellows Program, offered as a joint training between the Area Foundation and HOLT CAT specifically for nonprofit CEOs and senior managers.

“I was like a sponge and the Area Foundation was the one place that I knew I could get what I needed,” Barton said. “The values-based program not only gave me a unique perspective on how to lead but it also forced me to learn the foundation in which I was trying to lead from.”

That’s essentially music to Sandie Palomo-Gonzalez’s ears.

As a manager with the Area Foundation’s Learning and Development Department, she helps develop and structure the organization’s courses, workshops and in-depth certificate programs.

Playing such a critical role in Barton’s journey from homeless addict to nonprofit CEO is a vivid reminder of the Area Foundation’s important role in the community, particularly serving the nonprofit sector.

“Sometimes we may underestimate the impact of our training programs,” Palomo-Gonzalez said. “[We’re] building strong leaders and making already strong leaders even stronger and that has as a ripple effect because they go back and strengthen their organizations [so] they’re in a better position to do their work in the community.”

Interested in finding out more about the Area Foundation’s many professional development offerings? With topics ranging from Developing Your Strategy to Creating a Strong Development Program and Telling Your Story Through Social Media, there’s something for any nonprofit to take their operation to a higher level. Click here to find out more, sign up or to reach out to us with any questions.

Hernán Rozemberg is the Director of Communications and Storytelling in the San Antonio Area Foundation’s Marketing and Communications Department.