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Once homeless, Stan Stone HITS NEW MILESTONE: he's a College grad
DAVID GRUBBS/Gazette Staff Stan Stone graduates today with a degree at MSU-B. Just two years ago, Stone was homeless, living at the Montana Rescue Mission.

When Stan Stone showed up for orientation at Montana State University-Billings two years ago, he was directed to a parents' gathering.

Then 51, Stone was even older than most students who are considered "nontraditional" by the time they reach their mid-20s.

Stone's age and recent status as homeless didn't stop him from reaching his goal of getting a degree.

Today, he will graduate at age 53 from MSU-B with a bachelor's degree in human services.

Stone believes that people have to be alert to opportunities and then take them when they pop up.

He should know.

Over the last four years, Stone has done just that to pull himself out of the lowest point of his life.

Stone grew up in California and earned an associate's degree in human services from Los Angeles Community College in the 1970s. He later would work for the college in its Equal Opportunity Program as a tutor coordinator for students.

After work, he'd go out drinking with co-workers, a habit that led to a serious, 35-year drinking problem. Eventually he moved to Denver, where he worked several years at the Samaritan House, a site for the homeless run by Catholic Charities.

By the fall of 1999, he was having heart problems aggravated by his drinking. He had open-heart surgery and quit his job to recuperate. After a couple of months, he had a hard time finding a new job and fell into a depression. He went on a drinking binge designed, he admits, to kill himself.

"My self-destructive lifestyle caught up to me," he said. "When you get to a certain age, you see there may not be any hope."

Stone's path back started when he took his sister's advice to go to Miles City, where relatives lived. He then came to Rimrock Foundation in Billings for three days until he found that his insurance wouldn't cover treatment there.

Left without a home or a job, he moved into the Montana Rescue Mission, where he would live and work for several months.

That saved his life.

"I was given a second chance at life," he said.

He joined a support group to help him stop drinking and was involved with a Bible study group at the mission. He said that he's not a born-again Christian, but the group helped him build a spiritual foundation for his life.

He also began taking adult-education computer classes at Lincoln Center, where he met Michelle Gasek, a counselor with the Education Opportunity Center who encouraged him to return to college.

Because of his surgery, he qualified for vocational rehabilitation benefits, which paid for his tuition. Financial aid and loans paid for other expenses.

Stone also was helped by Student Opportunity Services, a federally funded program for low-income students. He used its tutoring services and return-to-learn program, a orientation program that introduces the campus to nontraditional students.

Stone went through culture shock because of his age when he first arrived at MSU-B. But he soon adjusted and met his goal of completing his bachelor's degree in two years.

"It was a lot of hard work," he said.

Living in the dorms came in handy because he does not have a car or a computer.

As for his future, he has an apartment to move in to and will be looking for a job in a treatment center as a case manager or as a substance abuse counselor.

His upcoming graduation seems a little surreal to him and is an event he views with mixed emotions.

"I won't believe it until it happens," he said.

He feels good about it getting his degree and is relieved that the hard work of studying is over, he said. But, at the same time, he is anxious about leaving a place where he has made good friends.

Mary Pickett can be reached at 657-1262 or at mpickett@billingsgazette.com.

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