Running away from home age 14. Dropping out after the 10th grade. Overdosing on drugs at 18. Despite life’s most difficult setbacks, Ryan Fleenor never lost his entrepreneurial spirit.
Now 33, the Utah native has his own business, FleenorMade Products, using mechanical engineering skills to build patio furniture. He works two jobs and freelances in architectural design, giving clients confidence in the homebuilding process from start to finish.
As a teenager, he was always busy, whether building treehouses or thinking up ways to earn spending money. It didn’t bother Fleenor that his friends didn’t share his enthusiasm.
“When I was 14, I was mowing lawns to get my first car,” he says. “So, when I turned 16, I had my own vehicle. I mean, I paid for it myself.” He soon took off for Wyoming, where his sister had moved.
“I lived with my sister for a couple of years there and went to a different high school, and I ended up going through a lot of troubles with drugs and homelessness,” Fleenor adds. “I ended up overdosing when I was about 18.”
What he says began with peer pressure and “being in the wrong place at the wrong time” escalated into taking a mix of pills and being sent to a mental institution. “I was never heavily into drugs. It was a really short time, and that’s why I was so sensitive to it. I just ended up being pulled into it,” he adds. “Now, I’m a lot stronger mentally.”
Quitting high school and moving into his own apartment, the teenager found work framing houses. “My dad was a framer, builder. All my brothers were, and I remember hanging out on the job sites as a kid,” he explains.
Fleenor was 23 before earning his high school diploma, which, he points out, is different than getting a GED (General Educational Development) certificate. “Instead of going the easy way out, I went the hard way for a change. I really tried. I wanted to learn. After my overdose, I wanted to rehabilitate.”
Then came another major setback. “Right after I got my diploma, I actually fell on a job site where I broke my back, my neck, my sternum, my left arm. I had ribs going through my lungs,” he says.
Surprisingly, this turned his life around. “I ended up going to vocational rehab in Utah, and they suggested that they could help get me into an education,” adds the Springville resident.
In his first year at Utah Valley University, he met professor Darin Taylor, a former SkillsUSA medalist. “He asked me to compete, and what changed me was SkillsUSA,” Fleenor says. His team won national gold medals in Engineering Technology/Design for two straight years (pictured above).
After the first medal, “my school gave me a scholarship,” he says. “If it wasn’t for that, I wouldn’t have been able to pay for my education to continue on.” He earned an associate degree in drafting technology and, this spring, will graduate with his bachelor’s in technology management.
It’s all thanks to Taylor and another professor, Howard Bezzant, also a former competitor, who accompanied Fleenor to the nationals. “I’ve told them how much they’ve changed my life, but I don’t think they understand,” Fleenor says. “If it hadn’t been for SkillsUSA, I wouldn’t have continued in school. But Howard and Darin were always saying, ‘Hey, I think you can do this.’ ”