By the time he was 12, he was placed on probation for stealing. A year later, the woman he calls his mother died. His biological parents weren’t able to take care of him.
“I guess I started out on the wrong foot,” Brian Albo Bettini says.
Over the next few years, he became well-acquainted with youth-detention centers, foster homes and jails. This is obviously a path that can easily lead to bigger problems.
Albo Bettini managed to find a more acceptable track. He says he still has a way to go. But during a recent phone conversation from California, where he’s within two weeks of getting a license that will allow him a potentially lucrative job as a mortgage lender, Albo Bettini sounds as optimistic about the future as anyone his age.
The 27-year-old artist, traveler and graduate of Fort Lewis College with a degree in international business already has come a long way.
A week after he was born in 1987, he was given to his grandmother to raise. Virginia Albo pushed her grandson to develop his smarts and his artistic talents and insisted that Brian was going to be something special.
“To me, my grandmother’s mom,” he says. “She did the absolute best job she could. I know she’s with me.”
He grew up on Durango’s south side. In the past, the common path didn’t necessarily take a kid from there to college and to a lucrative job. Sometimes, the path leads one to trouble.
Amadore Tucson, a relative, remembers Brian as a good kid. He would wash the windows at Tucson’s Barber & Styling on Main Avenue in exchange for a haircut. Tucson would later counsel his trouble-finding kin at DeNier Youth Services Center.
Albo Bettini says he began “messing around” at age 11 or 12, and the death of his grandmother at 13 threw his world upside-down. His mother wasn’t in a place to take care of him, and his dad wasn’t around, so he and a younger sister became wards of the state. He ended up in foster and proctor homes.
“I kind of went crazy and started screwing up really bad,” Albo Bettini says.
His main crime was stealing. Sometimes, it was out of necessity – school clothes, food, school supplies. But “like an idiot,” he agreed to steal a stereo out of a car when a man offered him money. He was caught. Albo Bettini spent about three years in and out of DeNier.
“The few times I did get out, I just reverted back into my old ways of thinking. Any little thing just kind of set me off,” he says.
He had little direction, and little to motivate him. At his lowest, he attempted suicide while in DeNier.
“I just didn’t even care. I didn’t see a future,” Albo Bettini says. “I kind of lost it to be honest with you.”
Later, with the help of DeNier’s director, he entered Rite of Passage – a learning facility for at-risk youths that is an open campus setting with dorms, in contrast with DeNier, a lockdown facility. He was in both Nevada and Watkins, Colorado.
Eventually, he returned to Durango for his later high school years. School and sports were a haven, but his home situation was still chaotic. He bounced among living with his brother, a best friend, his mom and his dad, but stuck nowhere. He graduated from Durango High in 2006, turned 18 and started little by little to make some goals and gain some independence.
It was after three months’ jail time in California that he really knew it was time to turn things around. When he returned to Durango, he was sleeping on the floor at his uncle’s. He’d hit rock bottom.
“I was pretty tired of being in and out of court, in and out of jail, juvenile places, boot camps,” he says. “I said, ‘I think I deserve a little bit more than what I’m giving myself.’ ... I felt I was kind of shortchanging myself living the way I was living.”
His grades were decent, his ACT score above-average. He applied to Fort Lewis. The day he got the call that he’d been accepted changed his life.
“Honestly, I wasn’t sure I was going to finish (college). I was just happy getting in there.”
He worked part-time jobs and worked harder keeping his grades up and succeeding in class. He spent the fall semester of his junior year attending a university in Málaga, Spain. Seeing the world from Europe was magical.
“It was really a great, great time in my life,” he says.
During his senior year, in spring 2013, he achieved a lasting impression at Fort Lewis by designing a colorful mural that decorates El Centro de Muchos Colores, the Hispanic resource center at FLC.
The mural is about 4 feet high by 8 feet wide. It took about a month to design and about two months to paint. He’d come in late at night, put on some music and create some art. He finally finished April 19 and graduated eight days later.
The mural was made into a postcard – one of which is stuck on the mirror at Tucson’s barbershop.
“Some of the kids on the south side are stuck and stuck,” says Isadore Tucson, son of Amadore Tucson, and also a barber at Tucson’s. “My hat’s off to Brian. ... It’s nice to see someone like that (succeed) who didn’t have a silver spoon in his mouth.”
His mother, Isabell Albo Whitaker, and father, Nick Bettini, are back in his life. His mother gave him money to visit Europe after his college graduation and has told him he inspired her to make a positive change in her life, Brian Albo Bettini says. Nick Bettini didn’t meet his son, and didn’t actually know of his existence, until Brian was 12.
“He’s done this all himself,” says Nick Bettini, proud enough of his son to suggest this story to the Herald. “I didn’t teach this kid anything. All I gave him was love. ... This kid turned out to be amazing. His attitude’s just beautiful, man.”
Brian Albo Bettini is currently doing security in the Lake Arrowhead area near San Bernardino, California, and working for an uncle in the insurance business. He’s spending free time studying laws and regulations for his mortgage-loan originator license.
Brian Albo Bettini compares his life so far to an athlete who misses the starting gun. It would have been easy to give up the race and wind up an habitual drug addict or alcoholic or prisoner.
“To me, I feel I still have a long way to go. I kind of look at it as starting a race way far behind everybody else, and I have to catch up to the front.
“I’m not winning it now, but at least I’m in it.”
firstname.lastname@example.org. John Peel writes a weekly human-interest column.