His first wife had left him. He was separated from his children. He was starting over in another city and sleeping on the floor of a friend's apartment.
But he had a Bible and a dictionary -- The Word and the words -- so Derrick Hayes realized he had an abundance of resources to transform his setbacks into bounce-backs.
And he turned his woe into a Word Of Encouragement.
Array of messages
A decade later, the 43-year-old Columbus resident is remarried and actively involved with his two children and two stepchildren. He works as a special-education aide at Jordan High School. He also is a motivational speaker with an array of online offerings to spread his message, such as:
Motivation To Your Mobile, a free app that has a daily Word Of Encouragement. It has been downloaded more than 30,000 times, he said. "Man, people are looking for motivation," he said.
TodaysHonoree.com, a blog that highlights one inspiring person each Monday through Friday. "We've done over 500 profiles," he said. "I've only nominated two people, one is my daughter and the other is my wife." The rest come from submitted nominations, he said.
EncouragementSpeaker.com and DerrickHayes.com, websites that show more of his talents, such as Derricknyms, in which Hayes turns the name of his customer into an acrostic. He uses the name's letters as the first letter in a series of words that form a positive message. He doesn't use a computer program to create the acrostics. "God just gives them to me," he said.
Hayes has more than 4,700 friends on Facebook and more than 4,300 followers on Twitter.
In October, Hayes spoke during the Association for Black Culture Centers annual conference at Auburn University.
"Your gift with words really makes an impact on the people you connect with," Shakeer Abdullah, the association's vice president, wrote in a testimonial. "Our students and staff are still beaming from their interactions with you."
Other groups Hayes has spoken to include the Collegiate Entrepreneurs Organization annual conference in Chicago, a student leadership conference at Jackson State University, local Subway restaurants and the Columbus State University men's basketball team.
Hayes' journey came full circle when he spoke at his alma mater, Tennessee State University.
On the Nashville main campus Sept. 24, he presented "Building Relationships in College and Out."
He estimated the crowd at 150-200.
"It felt great," he said. "My work isn't in vain. I love what I do, whether I make a dollar or not, but now people are starting to realize that what I have is of value.
"I'm not a rocket scientist. I just give people science to help them rocket."
Tennessee State mass communication major Jer'Mykeal McCoy wrote in a testimonial, "Students were really empowered by the message of Derrick Hayes. Mr. Hayes not only did he bring a lot of real world experience to the students but he made it relatable."
Hayes grew up in Rantoul, Ill., adjacent to the now-closed Chanute Air Force Base, about 20 minutes north of Champaign, the University of Illinois main campus.
"I was determined to make something with my life, to do something," he said. "I had big dreams, still do. I have friends that have been killed. I have friends still locked up."
He failed the ACT college entrance exam on his first try but persevered to attend Tennessee State. He paid his way through college via Hot Dog Heaven, a business he and a friend started as freshmen with three packs of wieners. During his senior year, he saw his grander fundraising idea come to fruition as he helped turn a blank wall on campus into the "Wall of Excellence," where businesses pay a fee to display their logos. That project has raised more than $500,000 for Tennessee State scholarships in 10 years, said Hayes, who graduated in 1993 with a bachelor's degree in business administration.
The Urban League in Nashville challenged him to speak to youth in mentoring programs while he was a student at Tennessee State.
"I never thought this was going to plant a seed for working with juveniles later on," he said. "We were going to juvenile detentions centers, through our church program. I started developing and got the confidence that I could speak on my own."
He worked in Alabama at various jobs in education, although he hasn't completed his master's degree to become a certified teacher. When his first marriage soured in 2003, he moved to Atlanta and slept on a friend's apartment floor for about a year, until he was hired as a direct-care professional for Devereux Georgia, a behavioral health treatment network for children and youth adults with severe emotional and psychological challenges.
"I was down," he said. "I was hurting."
So he turned to his Bible and dictionary and found inspiration in the phrase "Woe is me."
"Woe is a trial or tribulation," he said, "but I saw it as a Word Of Encouragement."
His first weekend in Atlanta, his friend convinced him to go out dancing instead of feeling sorry for himself. The same scenario happened that night to a divorced woman from Columbus, who joined her friend for a night of dancing in Atlanta. That's how Hayes met his current wife, Kim, a registered nurse at the John B. Amos Cancer Center.
"A WOE is what I would share with her, because we still were long distance," he said. "She was in Columbus; I was in Atlanta.
"I started to see things in words I never saw before. I would read the dictionary frontward and backward."
For example, Hayes saw the word "if" in the word "life."
"So if you don't try," he said, "who's to say you will succeed?"
His own definitions
Hayes moved to Columbus in 2006 and married Kim in 2007. He worked as a juvenile corrections officer before joining the Jordan staff in 2012.
His mother, who died from cancer in 2007, inspired his riff on the word "look."
"She told me don't worry about how things look," he said. "She couldn't wear the shoes she liked to wear. She couldn't wear her hair the way she liked to wear it. My mom was a classy lady, and she couldn't look the way she used to live, but inside the word 'look' is the word 'OK,' because, no matter how things look, everything is going to be OK."
And here's what he learned from sleeping on that floor, where some would say he had hit BOTTOM but he insists on a different definition: "Being Optimistic Through Trials Opens Miracles."
Then he quoted Proverbs 18:16 to put the lesson in perspective: "A man's gift maketh room for him and bringeth him before great men.' I learned that everybody has a talent, but not everybody has the confidence to develop it or even try. Most dreams end up in the cemetery."
Instead of thinking your goal is "impossible," he said, see within the word an empowering message: "I'm possible."