Who knows if Jerrod Bolton would be graduating from Kodiak High School in a few weeks if his grandparents didn’t open the doors to their home and take him in four years ago.
Surely, he would not have carved out a cross country and soccer career that included three trips to state championship events if he would not have been rescued from being homeless in Hawaii.
The grandparents supplied structure, stability and self-confidence to a teenager in desperate need of formality.
“I knew they were more strict than my mom, and I came in with a different mindset that I had to behave better,” Bolton said.
Bolton found himself in Hawaii when his mom chased a love interest there. The relationship flamed out, which led to Bolton and his mom being homeless on the Big Island. The two bounced from shelters in Kona and Hilo and spent nights on beaches for a few months.
At the time, being a middle school student, Bolton didn't think anything of the situation.
“A part of me wants to say that I didn’t know what was going on,” he said. “I’ve always been a pretty relaxed person, and it never really bothered me — it was just something that we had to go through. I did what I had to with my mom.”
Thanks to an aid worker who kept the mom’s purse filled with food stamps, Bolton never went hungry. Hygiene was a different story. The only showers were at the beach, and the water flowing out of the showerhead was “freezing cold.”
“People kind of treated me differently, and I didn’t really like that, but I got through it,” Bolton said.
The summer before entering high school, Bolton returned to Kodiak to spend two months with his grandparents. The vacation never ended.
“I wasn’t quite aware of the extent of the homelessness, but I was aware of it — just didn’t know how bad or what his daily circumstances were,” said Charlie Barber, Bolton’s grandfather.
“When he got here, he was appreciative of the structure and accommodations that we were able to offer him. He asked if he could stay for the school year. Obviously, the answer was yes, and here we are — it is almost over.”
Barber turned into a rock for Bolton. The constant variable in his life that he was craving.
The grandfather was there when Bolton got cut from the high school’s soccer team as a freshman and was there two years later when he played at the state tournament. Barber never missed a soccer match — home or away — and was there to cheer him on at Fort Abercrombie State Historical Park during cross country meets.
“My grandpa always gave me the motivation and that I was always better than I thought I was,” Bolton said.
He needed that motivation when he was cut from the soccer team. Having played soccer periodically over the years, he was a rough talent, not polished like the other players. Being a wiry 6-foot-4, he could barely boot the ball 30 yards and struggled with headers.
First-year coach Mike Huerta gave him the option to practice with the team. He did — thanks in part to his grandma who made him stick with it — and by the end of the season, because of injuries, was given the opportunity to play in games.
By his junior season, he was named team captain, and as a defensive specialist, helped lead Kodiak to its first state tournament appearance.
“I told him why I cut him and why I think he should keep trying and keep playing … he never gave up,” Huerta said. “I think the best thing to happen to him was cutting him. I don’t think he would have gotten to where he is right now, skill-wise if I would have just let him play that year.”
Soccer led Bolton to cross country as Huerta told his players that joining the fall sport would benefit them during the spring. Bolton was the only player who joined a Kodiak running program rich with history.
He helped the Bears win a pair of Region III titles and qualify for the 2018 and 2019 state championship meet. He placed 70th in the Division I state meet as a junior and 69th as a senior.
“I did not know how historical or how many awards and standards were set for the Kodiak cross country team. I didn’t realize my sophomore year because I didn’t care, but the next year is the year I fell in love with cross country and running. Having supportive coaches was such a blast, and the team was supportive and fun to be around.”
Bolton most likely would have been named captain of the soccer team as a senior, but the coronavirus pandemic ended his final campaign before it even started. He has missed being with his teammates and has coped by hiking the trails of the island.
“My favorite part of any sport is playing with the team, that is why I did both cross country and soccer,” he said.
Huerta said Bolton is a “coach’s dream” — a hard-working team player who is always aiming to improve. The coach believes Bolton could play soccer in college because of those attributes. “Adversity doesn’t bother him,” Huerta said.
Bolton has different plans. He wants to enlist in the Army. His grandfather served 30 years in the military — 20 with the Coast Guard and 10 with the Navy.
“I really look up to my grandfather. He is such a loyal person and always has a smile on his face,” Bolton said. “He supports his family to the end … I really wish I could be more like my grandfather, and I think that is the way to go.”
Barber is glad he was able to give his grandson a better life.
“I’m 75, and it has been a pleasant experience for me — something to get up in the morning for,” he said.
Bolton said his relationship with his mom, who now lives in Washington state, has been “rocky,” and he doesn’t call her as often as he should. He doesn’t regret the turbulent period of his life.
“Being homeless is kind of what I needed to become the person that I am today,” Bolton said. “It was such a humbling experience. I never like to take for granted the food on my plate and the roof over my head, just because I didn’t have that for a couple of months.”