Bill Lepchitz has lived the American Dream many times.
Great jobs, great salaries. Wife. Two kids. Big house in a country-club neighborhood. Enough money to retire at 50. But here he sits on a brick wall in downtown Atlanta outside the Gateway Center, whose mission is to help individuals who are homeless.
Lepchitz is a resident, has been for a year. He was left without a home because of an addiction to cocaine and a lifestyle in which he estimates he blew through more than $1 million over the years.
But the good thing about the American Dream — and what better day to ponder that than the Fourth of July — is there always is a second chance. Or in Lepchitz’s case, who has had many chances, an appendix.
His next chapter will continue when he participates in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Peachtree Road Race on Thursday. Running, along with friendships made in groups such as Back on My Feet, are keeping Lepchitz balanced as he navigates his way in life.
“Everybody has a path of their own, and if you find the fire inside of you, you can stay and keep the fire alive,” he said. “You can achieve what you want to achieve, you just have to desire it.”
Lepchitz’s background in sales and drugs seemed to be part of the fuel that kept him going. His personality seems geared toward the quick-start conversations that lead to business relationships. As he recaps his life, he offers a cheerful hello to everyone who walks past. One man asks for one of the two bananas Lepchitz is carrying as nourishment following his morning run, which started at 5:45 a.m. Lepchitz gives the man both bananas.
Lepchitz says he was very good at his job, but along with his success came too many bad choices.
He tried cocaine for the first time as a senior in college at Kentucky. He kept using it as he moved up the professional ranks.
“(My) job was entertaining and relationships,” he said. “That’s how I got into the lifestyle.”
He maintained functionality, holding a series of what he described as six-figure-salary jobs, but he also kept using.
After 20 years of addiction, things fell apart. He tried several rehabs — once staying sober for six years — but they didn’t offer what he needed to maintain sobriety. What that was, he didn’t know.
Everything crashed in July last year. Lepchitz lost his house. He was out of money.
“The lowest point was realizing that after doing so well in my life at so many things — business, sports — that I got beat by addiction and couldn’t control it,” he said. “It’s the one thing that I couldn’t control. I hurt a lot of family, burned a lot of bridges … to the point of being totally homeless … not knowing my way back up.”
He moved into the Gateway Center.
But within Gateway, and with help from Back on My Feet, Lepchitz may have found his way.
Lepchitz always has been athletic. He played tennis at Centre College. Even during his dark days, he and his wife would always find time to play sports with his two sons, a realization that causes him to chuckle.
But until recently, he always hated to run. As a soccer player in high school, he and a buddy would hide in the woods to avoid the training runs.
His attitude changed when a representative from Back on My Feet came to Gateway Center to see if any of the residents were interested in running. Back on My Feet uses running to try to help people see themselves differently. Its headquarters is in Philadelphia and has several chapters, such as Atlanta’s, around the country.
Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, Back on My Feet volunteers offered to show up at Gateway Center at 5:45 a.m. to lead whoever wanted to go on 2- or 3-mile runs.
Lepchitz wasn’t interest at first. But then he figured why not.
He began running with Back on My Feet volunteer Mandy Putnam. They found they shared interest in different ethnic food.
Putnam likes Lepchitz’s easy-going attitude when they run. Lepchitz likes Putnam’s “good energy,” which is a reflection of a spiritual class that Lepchitz takes at Gateway. He says she keeps him balanced.
They’ve been running partners for a year now, hitting the streets every morning except when there’s thunder.
They plan to run together during Thursday’s race.
Lepchitz has been sober for seven months. The cocaine high has been replaced by the runner’s high. He works several jobs that are a few levels below his former scope of employment, but he appreciates the discipline that employment and running provide.
He seems to have learned a few lessons.
“When I see pain coming down the road I take a right and get out of the way,” he said.
So now Lepchitz is beginning his life anew, with help from lots of people and new paths to travel. He and his wife are still friends. He practically glows when he talks about his older son. He implies that he’s trying to rebuild the relationship with his younger one.
Lepchitz’s answer when asked if he would have lent a helping hand to someone in need back when he was immersed in the American Dream summarizes his journey.
“Back in those days, we were pretty selfish and looked after ourselves,” he said. “It’s been a blessing to come through this process. I will always be a champion to help people like myself, regardless of where they come from. Once you fall into it, it’s difficult to get out.”