When I meet up with John Bonavia, we sit down to talk in the most unlikely of places: near a basketball court in what is not one of San Diego’s best neighborhoods. We are there to talk about the passion John Bonavia has for helping troubled youth avoid some of the same mistakes he has made and for providing help to those struggling with addiction issues. As I listen to John Bonavia, I sense that he is a man who is serious about turning the page in his life’s story and about using his own experiences to bring healing to others and, perhaps, to himself.
John Bonavia watches as a few teens play a game of pickup basketball, smiling at their antics before turning to continue his story. “Today, I am a full-time student and am busting the books to get my degree in psychology. Earlier in my life, however, I made mistakes just like everyone does, and I’m trying to use them to help others to go in more positive directions.”
John Bonavia is inherently a people person, something that comes out as he discusses his vision. “See those kids over there on that court? Where are they going? Who are their mentors? Do they have a clear path forward? Or is it obstructed by a lack of opportunities? Those kids should have the same chances that anyone else has, which is why I have done a lot of volunteer work with youth.”
I ask John Bonavia if it is only kids that he wants to help. “No!” he exclaims, shaking his head. “I want to use my ability to connect with people to help adults who feel lonely once they leave the big social scene of their twenties. It’s something that isn’t talked about often enough: people who enjoyed the camaraderie of the clubs when they were younger but who don’t get out often now that they’re in their careers and with their families.”
His idea, he explains, is to fill that hole with positive social opportunities. “Being in this life stage isn’t bad at all,” John Bonavia believes. “There is nothing wrong with the responsibilities of having a job or a family, of course. The potential problem is that it sometimes cuts into the time we all need with other people. That’s why I started a social club for entrepreneurs and career-minded individuals. We can get together, talk, and enjoy each other’s company, but we do it without all the ‘meat market’ pressure of our twenties. We also don’t have to be sardines and try to avoid having drinks get spilled on us. I think the members like having the chance to have a few hours talking about anything and everything with interesting people.”
Over the years, John Bonavia has developed a heart for both teens and adults who struggle with addiction. “They are trying to fill a void within themselves with a destructive substance or are trying to use it to escape something in their lives,” he believes. “It saddens me because these people have tremendous potential, yet they so often can’t see it. I want to help them to find the peace they are searching for.”
His idea is to become a mentor for those who have ever struggled with addiction. “I want to be that positive influence they may need, but I am aiming to do it both one-on-one as well as to larger groups. To that end, I am developing Tedx talks on overcoming addictions and on facing your past and making amends so that you can truly find joy.”
John Bonavia watches as the basketball game breaks up and the kids start to head home. “Happiness – or the lack of it – also comes from how we define success. I wonder sometimes, honestly, at our youth. They are being told the wrong message, that success is ‘one and done.’ They so often think you can attain it in the blink of an eye, yet really, success comes when you use your past to courageously continue on a path that is rooted in your own mistakes and life lessons.”
He goes on to say that he used to believe that if a person acquired material things, that showed they were successful. “I was wrong, though. I once lost all of my material possessions, and I was left with one thing: a desire to love and to help others. That led to a blessing: the realization that my integrity and self-respect were growing because I was not just thinking of myself anymore.”
John Bonavia stands up and offers to escort me back to my car. As we walk along the sidewalk, he offers me this last thought: “There are many things I want to do in life. I am still as ambitious as I ever was. Now, the difference is my focus. It’s no longer about what something or someone can do for me. Instead, it’s about how I can help others.”
As I drive away, I look in the rearview mirror and see a man who is grateful for the challenges he has had in life and who is now committed to using them all for the good.