It’s been a whirlwind week for Fred Barley, the 19-year-old homeless biology major who pedaled 60 miles in the high-90s Georgia heat and humidity on his little brother s borrowed 20-inch bicycle, loaded down with two duffel bags, two gallons of water and a folded-up tent.
Barley was simply trying to beat the fall semester rush to secure a job and dorm room at Barnesville, Georgia’s Gordon State College.
But in a serendipitous turn of events – and thanks to more than a few guardian angels – he s now $184,266 richer with a global fan base.
“I just want to say thank you to everyone who has helped me,” he tells PEOPLE. “I want to make you all proud.”
He also wants to pay it forward and is currently fielding invitations to deliver motivational talks to kids in various youth programs and detention centers.
And this is the message he wants to deliver: “Don’t give up,” he says. “Even when it seems like the world is against you, keep striving, keep believing in God. God has always been my rock and if he’s my rock, he can be anyone s rock. Let Him handle it and things will work out in your favor.”
It all started with his 60-mile bike ride on July 6.
“It was hot and my legs burned,” Barley said of the ride that took “six hours and some change. There were several times I wanted to stop, but then I would realize how far I’d come and just wanted to keep going.”
Arriving at the campus, he sought out a discreet spot to pitch his tent, ultimately setting up camp at the most remote corner of the school’s parking lot, hidden behind a patch of pampas grass. There, he slept for three nights until a phone call from a concerned citizen sent two area police officers to the scene.
“I was afraid of going to jail,” Barley said of hearing Gordon State campus officer Dicky Carreker and Barnesville Police Officer Maria Gebelein ask him to come out of his tent with his hands up.
But after a run of Barley’s driver’s license and student ID and a bit of conversation, things took an unexpectedly positive turn.
“I’ve always been a pretty good judge of character and he just came across as a genuine, good kid,” Carreker tells PEOPLE. “Conyers to Barnesville, if traffic is okay, is an hour and 20-minute drive in a vehicle. The fact that he had ridden that distance on a 20-inch bike was beyond my comprehension. It hit me hard that he was that determined.”
On Gebelein’s suggestion the officers decided to chip in on a two-night stay for Barley at the nearby Sun Inn and shortly afterward, Carreker’s wife posted the story on Facebook. Casey Blaney, a military wife and mother of three already busy with a move to Hawaii, saw the story and, along with 13-year-old son, Cole, set out to the hotel to meet Barley in person and ask how they could help.
“I said to him, ‘I just need to know if what I read was true,’ ” she tells PEOPLE. “He smiled and said, ‘Yes, ma’am.’ I’ve never seen a more positive person in all my life.”
She asked him how she could help – several times – and he finally told her he could use a job.
“He actually refused help,” she says. “He was just extremely humble and grateful and insistent that he was fine. I was smitten at that point.”
She insisted on paying up front for Barley to stay at the hotel until his dorm room was ready for move-in July 18 and set up a GoFundMe account, initially aiming to raise $1,000 to help Barley with a few essentials. But once the story hit the media, the contributions quickly shot up tens of thousands of dollars in just days (and is now closed down after raising nearly $185,000).
Meanwhile, the two focused on job hunting and Barley soon landed an opportunity at DB’s Pizzeria in Barnesville as a dishwasher and pizza maker-in-training.
“Learning how to flip pizzas is hard, but it’s fun,” Barley says with a laugh, referring to the traditional method of tossing pizza dough into the air with a just-right twist of the wrist to create a smooth circle. “I was so excited. Having a job, period, was a blessing. I had been searching for a job for days.”
Debra Adamson, the owner of the pizzeria, says hiring him was a no-brainer.
“The fact that he was driven to ride the 50 or 60 miles from Conyers to get here before all the other college students got into the dorms and got jobs shows drive and determination,” she tells PEOPLE. “Because of my particular path and how I grew up I knew it was genuine. That’s why I hired him sight unseen.”
At 53 years old and 21-years clean from a decades-long drug addiction, Adamson herself is a full-time student at Gordon State College studying management administration.
She plans to train in substance abuse counseling and speaks at rehab centers and serves as an adult learner mentor at the college. So she knows more than a little about life struggles and the peace that comes with having a safe, stable environment and a support system of family and friends.
“Fred is one of the most genuine young men I’ve met in a long time and I don’t say that lightly,” she says.
“He spends a lot of time in tears because of the things people have given him and done for him,” she says. “I want my restaurant to be a kind of safe haven for him, where he can come to work and have three or four hours of not having to worry about what’s going on outside.”
Barley s three-night stay in the campus parking lot wasn’t his first experience in tent living.
Before setting out from Conyers, he slept in the same tent behind a church for a month. He declined to go into details about the circumstances that rendered him homeless, remaining staunchly protective of his family’s privacy and assuring supporters that his familial issues are “nothing to be worried about.”
A longtime family friend who asked not to be identified says he’s seen that mix of survival instinct and protective tendencies in Barley for years, particularly when Barley, who played running back and safety, served as captain of his Heritage High School football team during his senior year.
“He’s always had that leader spirit about him,” the family friend, whose son was a sophomore teammate at the time, tells PEOPLE. “Regardless of what was going on – wins, losses, upsets – Fred was always the voice of reason.
“He’d say, ‘Yeah, some things are going on, but we still have to carry out our assignment. We still have to work our craft. We can do better,’ ” the friend says. “That’s very rare with kids, to put it back on themselves and say, ‘We can do better.’ He didn’t speak much, but when he did, people listened.”
Looking forward, Barley aims to use his newfound fortune to make it to medical school, study psychiatry (though he once considered neurosurgery) and ultimately open his own practice. That goal is inspired by his experiences with a childhood friend who had mental issues and was treated unkindly, he says.
“The day I open up a psychiatric practice, I want to make sure [patients] are treated like they should be – like a human being,” he says.
While Barley focuses on the coming start of the school year and graciously turns down additional, higher paying job offers – “‘I m gonna be loyal to Miss Debbie. She was the first one to offer me a job when I had nothing,” he says – Blaney is working with financial and tax professionals to establish a trust for the proper management of donations. (He, in turn, calls Blaney his “unofficial adopted mom.”)
And though he’s deeply appreciative of all the attention, well wishes and help, he’s looking forward to getting back to the quiet life of a normal college kid.
“Definitely ready to have a chill day,” he says.