« Back

Reunited at Last: Alumnus Credits YSS with Saving His Life Five Decades Ago

On a sunny, fall afternoon, Casey Collins reunited with the man who saved his life nearly 50 years ago: Dr. George Belitsos, founder of YSS.

“There’s a lot of us out there who are alive today because of George,” Casey says with tears in his eyes. “He is a hero.”

Casey met Dr. George in 1974. A conscientious objector to the Vietnam War, Dr. George came to Ames to complete his alternative service. He opened Shelter House, the first-ever youth emergency shelter in Iowa, which later expanded to Youth & Shelter Services (now YSS).

Shelter House welcomed runaway and homeless youth from all over the state—including a friend of Casey’s. One day Casey tagged along with his friend to the house. They were sitting in the living room when Dr. George walked by and paused to say hello.

“George was obviously going to something important, but he dropped everything he was doing,” Casey remembers. “He took me to his office and just sat and talked with me.”

At 13, Casey had already experienced a rough life. His father was emotionally and physically abusive to him. His teachers didn’t know how to handle his severe dyslexia and often called him lazy. He started doing drugs in fifth grade. At night, he would sneak out and walk the streets because even the dark alleys seemed safer than his house.

So when Dr. George sat down with him that day, Casey was deeply moved.

“God blessed George with this amazing ability to make you feel like you’re the most important person in the world,” he says. “I had never experienced that before.”

Casey is emotional as he explains he had been planning to take his life at that point—he had stockpiled enough drugs, picked the place, and thought about his note. “But George changed my mind. For the first time in my life, I felt like maybe I was worth something,” Casey says.

After that day, he started hanging around YSS and got involved with the prevention program. “It was a hiding place for me,” he explains. Casey had a passion for art, so he enjoyed the workshop that offered a recording studio and a dark room for photography.

The following year, Casey entered a poster contest through YSS as part of Iowa Drug Abuse Prevention Week. He was sitting in English class when the principal came in and informed Casey he had won. The prize included a photo shoot with then-Iowa Governor Robert D. Ray, and his design was made into posters and even a billboard. “This was the first success I ever had in my life,” Casey says.

For years, Casey found an escape at YSS. He says the newly formed nonprofit was very organic and often chaotic, but Dr. George was a constant presence—always making time to watch films the youth created or joining in on improvised songs in the recording studio.

The last time Casey saw Dr. George, he was 17 and preparing to leave for the Marine Corps. Casey admits it took some time to get on the right path after that. He continued to use drugs until Feb. 11, 1981, when a voice in his head told him to stop or he would be dead within a year. Casey listened—and has been clean ever since.

After years abroad in the Marine Corps, Casey attended college, got married, and had three children. He settled in Arizona working as a contractor, machine operator, and pastor. Additionally, he spent years in homeless ministry, providing hope to hundreds of individuals in need.

Recently, Casey returned to Ames to care for his mother and decided to find Dr. George. Casey didn’t know if YSS still existed or if Dr. George was around, but he knew he had to try. “I wanted to let him know that I ended up okay,” Casey says.

Casey finally connected with Dr. George, and the two reunited at YSS headquarters. Casey immediately started crying when he saw Dr. George and they hugged. Dr. George shared a newspaper clipping from Casey’s poster contest, and the two reminisced about YSS in its early days.

Later that afternoon, Casey met Andrew Allen, who has served as YSS President & CEO since Dr. George stepped down in 2015. Andrew took Casey to tour the Youth Recovery House, and they drove past the former Shelter House where Dr. George saved Casey’s life all those years ago.

“I’ve reflected a lot about my life, and it always goes back to that first day when I met George and what he did for me,” Casey says. “I’m 60 now; I didn’t expect to see 30. And I know that’s because of George.”

Other News

See all News