When Clayton Gonzales hears the word success, he stops.

Sitting in his south Denver office, he pauses briefly, composes himself and smiles.

In the best way he can, he explains success at Urban Peak, a Denver nonprofit where he works to help youth ages 13 to 24 experiencing or at risk of becoming homeless.

“It’s hard,” he said. “Here it’s hard to define success. There are a ton of things in between. It’s all in relation to the situation.

“Let me tell you a story. A couple of years ago I met one kid who for three or four weeks told me his name was John. Every day he said his name was John. Finally, one day, he came up to me and told me his real name. That was a huge success right there.”

Gonzales, who first graduated from Regis in 2010 with a bachelor’s in religious studies and finished his Master of Arts in Counseling in 2016, has spent the last six years working with Urban Peak. He is currently the assistant director of programming.

But his entry into counseling began much earlier. Gonzales joined the U.S. Army in 2003 and spent most of 2009 and 2010 in Iraq. His job wasn’t to be a counselor, but the realities of war demanded it.

Gonzales was a fire direction specialist in the Army’s field artillery team. He and his fellow soldiers spent days in war zones before returning to base. The wounds of war weren’t always apparent, but scary. Gonzales did what he knew would help his fellow soldiers struggling with the experience: talk to them.

“When you’re in a war zone for extended periods, it’s tough on the heart and soul,” he said. “That’s when I knew I was called to be a counselor and therapist.”

Gonzales got out of the military in 2010 and finished his undergraduate that year. Transitioning back to civilian life was tough, and he knew he had to keep busy. He started the counseling program in January of 2011. Several months later he took his first job as an outreach counselor at Urban Peak.

At Urban Peak he’d work 10-hour days walking the streets of Denver trying to connect with homeless youth. It wasn’t a far stretch from his military days. He had a mission.

He’d wear a backpack loaded with snacks, socks, medical supplies and “anything to keep them safe.”

He’d canvas the 16th Street Mall and near the South Platte River downtown. He’d hope to make contact, start a relationship and work to get them in Urban Peak’s programs.

“The first thing you learn is these kids are the picture of resiliency,” he said.

Working with Urban Peak and walking the streets, while taking classes in the evening was stressful, but necessary. Gonzales said it helped the transition into civilian life. Being back at Regis also gave him a sense of purpose.

“He’s an image of this big soldier,” said Betsy Hall, the assistant dean for the Division of Counseling and Family Therapy. “But he is so tender hearted.”

Hall taught Gonzales during his first two classes at Regis and said she knew there was something different about him. Gonzales’ openness about his time in war was refreshing for everyone in the classroom, said Hall.

“He impressed me from the moment he opened his mouth,” she said. “Certain students touch us deeply and he did with his willingness to share his story.”

Hall also had Gonzales for his last class, and oversaw his internship. She saw him develop as a person, but also find his true calling. And his values were clear.

“You see him and he’s motivated by doing the right thing,” she said.

These days, Gonzales doesn’t have a set routine. He works out of Urban Peak’s locations in downtown Denver and south Denver.

The downtown location serves more than 1,500 youth each year with the south Denver site helping more than 400.

His day starts with helping the youth start their day, talking about their lives — the good and the bad, and how to focus on making the day productive.

It’s not always easy.

“You have to know how much love to give,” he said. “You can’t give the kind of love where you take these kids home. But I can be with them on their journey. My energy and love goes into building amazing programs at Urban Peak.”

Those programs include counseling, help with school and finding employment. They also have a house program for those who succeed in earlier programs.

On this day, it’s lunchtime and Gonzales makes the rounds, chatting as he goes.

He says the stress isn’t any different than his time in the military, but the rewards here are greater.

Success, he said, isn’t always quantifiable.

But it’s some of the greatest success a person can experience.

“I was having a talk with my parents about how religion fits into my life,” he said. “This, if anything to me, is doing God’s work. I find a lot of spirituality and God in the work I do. My main job is to build relationships with people we’ve forgotten.” 

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