If you live in Charleston and go downtown on a weekend, chances are you’ve been approached by a little boy trying to sell you his handmade palmetto roses. Chances are he’s black, and chances are you’ve said no, and gone on with your walk or your fancy dinner.
Each of those little boys has a story, though. They come from a home that’s possibly not a happy one. They have a future that doesn’t always feel bright.
Jermaine was once one of those little boys. This is the story of how he went from peddling flowers to drugs, and then came to Turning Leaf to turn his life around.
Jermaine grew up in a house with his mama, his stepdaddy, three brothers and a sister. They lived in West Ashley for a while, then moved to downtown Charleston when he was still quite young. “It was always a struggle,” he says. “My stepdaddy was the only one working. Mama couldn’t find anyone to watch all five of us kids, so she mostly stayed home and watched us.”
Jermaine was, as he puts it, “hard-headed.” He didn’t always do what he was supposed to and got used to beatings from both his parents. “I’m being treated like the black sheep of the family,” he says.
With his biological father out of the picture and a not-great relationship with his parents at home, Jermaine grew close with his auntie and uncle. They’d pick him up, have him spend the day with them, and he loved it…until his mama told them to stop. She had five kids; either they had to take all of them, or they couldn’t have Jermaine.
Finances were always tight, so Jermaine learned early to make his own way. He was barely ten years old when he started gambling on the streets. “I learned to shoot dice or play cards with the older boys,” he says. He also learned to make palmetto roses, the kind sold all over the Charleston peninsula.
It was good to have his own cash, but there were drawbacks. He brought home so much money, in fact, no one believed he was just gambling and selling roses. “They didn’t think I was really just gambling,” he says. “They thought I was already, at eight or nine years old, slinging packages [selling drugs]. But I was really good at gambling, and I was making a lot of palmetto roses.”
His mama grew so convinced Jermaine was dealing drugs that she had his aunt and uncle intervene. They sat him down, told him about the dangers of dealing drugs, and didn’t believe he was only gambling. So, now that he was a little bit older, he thought, “Okay, you already think I’m selling drugs. I might as well go ahead and start doing it now.” So he did.
He was already 16 or 17 when he started dealing. At first, he didn’t do any of the drugs he dealt – his first time with weed ended with a scary, panicky feeling – but that changed later on. He stayed in school for a while, but since he was always that kid who was in trouble for clowning around, skipping class, and “messing with the females,” it was soon easier to stop going entirely. Jermaine dropped out of school in the 10th grade.
His mama knew what Jermaine was up to, but she couldn’t stop him. He stayed with his aunt instead of going home, or with the older girls he liked to hang out with. His mama would call and ask him to come home, but he’d tell her, “I’ll come see you, Mama, but I’m not dealing with all five of us in that house again.” His crowded, chaotic childhood wasn’t an experience Jermaine was willing to relive.
Then the arrests started and, as Jermaine says, “Once I started getting arrested, I kept on getting arrested. They were always messing with me. Sometimes it was loitering, other times they’d find something [drugs] on me. And it was back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, back and forth.”
Jermaine’s first serious charge came in 2015. “I was coming from the club and I stopped by a store,” he says, “I was teasing the ladies inside, I just wanted to get a little cigarette, make conversation, just be in the mix, ya know?” Police showed up and he tried to leave in a hurry, all his friends yelling “get in the car and go! Get in the car and go!” knowing he had drugs on him. The details are fuzzy, but once he was in the car, he saw a police officer approach the vehicle. In a panic, he put the car in reverse and cut the wheel sharply hoping to be able to cut out of the parking lot before the officer got to him. In his hurry to leave, he cut the car too sharply, and end up hitting the officer that was approaching the car. “It wasn’t bad, he had a little scratch on this thumb and a little bruise on his knee. I was just trying to not get caught up and go to jail, but I still got caught up, and ended up going to jail.” He was charged with possession as well as assault and battery on an officer, and it was the first time he realized he was in some real trouble. “When those cuffs closed on my hand, I knew it was all over for me.” His daughter was about 15 months old at the time, and suddenly he was looking at going to prison for a long time. After this he was caught drug trafficking, and then further with possession with intent to distribute. He was selling crack cocaine and ecstasy mostly. During his time in prison, he learned quickly that he never wanted his daughter to see him like that again “that used to stress me out” he was used to being the big guy in lockup, the big man. But in order to keep that reputation you can’t be depressed, he says “I used to just try and sleep that off, sleep off that emotion, and depression”.
Jermaine got lucky, though. His case got dropped on a procedural error, and he never did much time for it; instead, he was out on bond, then on extended probation. He learned about Turning Leaf in 2018, but with the charges still not closed out, he couldn’t join until late 2019. Now, he’s almost ready to graduate.
Today, Jermaine is focused on staying focused, and using the skills he’s learned at Turning Leaf to stay on the straight and narrow path. Stop and think is the most useful skill in keeping himself from making bad decisions and winding up back in jail. “I came too far,” he says. “I can’t worry about going back to jail. I’m not breaking the law no more.” His goals are to get a decent paying job to support his growing family (he has a second daughter due in July), and he’s working to get his GED and his driver’s license. He deals with the stresses as best he can while keeping his head held high. “Trying to work hard and do the right thing sometimes stresses me out,” he says. “I gotta be strong minded and willing to do what it takes to make it happen.”
If Jermaine could go back in time and talk to the little boy he once was, selling palmetto roses and gambling on the streets, he’d tell himself to stay in school. And as for anyone else caught up in the criminal lifestyle, he has one piece of advice. “Turning Leaf,” he says, “It’s the truth.”
If Turning Leaf is truth (and we truly believe it is), we’re so happy we could share our truth with you, Jermaine! Good luck with job placement, and especially with your new daughter! Both your girls are lucky to have you in their lives!
Visibility is key to a healthy childhood. Kids who feel invisible, unseen, tend to either fade into the background, or blaze forward into extremes. Both are dangerous paths to tread, with many obstacles waiting to drag you down.
This is the story of Tyrone, a quiet, private child who never had anyone tell him there was a better way to live. It’s our privilege to help him be seen today.
Tyrone grew up with a single mom in downtown Charleston. His mom was a domestic worker, cleaning hotels and private homes. She was often quiet; they didn’t talk much. Since it was just the two of him, Tyrone grew up quiet, too. In a way, this wasn’t awful. Tyrone developed a strong intuition about people, learning early how to read them and their intentions non-verbally.
Tyrone failed first grade, then third grade. Both times, he thinks it was because of language deficiencies, likely the result of his Gullah dialect. He didn’t like school. It’s hard for him to say whether it was his personality or the school system, but he felt disconnected from the material which didn’t reflect his history or experience as an African American. He failed 6th, 7th and 8th grade, too, but was pushed forward each year because he was too old to be held back. No one stepped in to help; no one saw how he struggled.
This was a turning point for him. He gave up his dream of being an archaeologist, because, to a kid, how can you be an archaeologist when you can’t even pass 8th grade?
By 12-years-old, Tyrone was selling drugs. He looked up to the “men” in the neighborhood, and theirs was the criminal lifestyle. These “men” were 19- and 20-year olds who, according to Tyrone, “didn’t know any better themselves. That was all they knew. There might have been opportunities, but we never saw or heard of them.” When he dropped out of school in 9th grade, Tyrone began selling drugs full-time.
Tyrone was first arrested at 17 and it crushed his mom. When he went to prison her hair was black. When he came out two years later it was almost completely white. But he continued to sell drugs and continued to get arrested. “I thought about quitting,” he says, “but then I would ask myself, what else am I going to do? I had no education and I didn’t know anyone who wasn’t doing criminal things. It was my identity. It felt good that people knew my name and needed me. If I didn’t sell drugs, then who was I? I would be invisible.”
Selling drugs allowed Tyrone, finally, to be seen. That had to feel good to an invisible kid.
At 25, Tyrone was sentenced to 15 years in federal prison for selling drugs, but that didn’t make him want to change his ways. He had a plan. “My plan was to rob someone with a lot of money when I got out and use it to start a business,” he says. “Obviously, that was ridiculous. I know nothing about business. But I knew I would be coming out of prison at 40 years old with no education and no skills. But you need a plan to hold on to when you’re facing 15 years in prison. Something to hold on to when you put your head down at night.”
So, what changed? Tyrone says he was lucky enough to find a group of men in prison who mentored him. They were facing life sentences and weren’t going to have another chance to get it right, but Tyrone did. He also found faith in Islam. Slowly, he began to self-reflect. He thought deeply about his experience as a black man, and the beliefs he had taken on according to society’s stereotype of him and his failure in school. He’d lived those stereotypes out, just like society knew he would.
In prison he freed himself by finally rejecting the belief that he was unworthy, somehow less than everyone else. Tyrone says that in a prison yard of 1,600 people with access to every drug imaginable and regular violence and gang activity, he created a daily structure that kept him out of trouble. He did things in prison that would normally make someone a target – like tucking his shirt in and carrying books – but it was important to him to live by his newfound principles. His actions inspired other people in prison who wanted to change but didn’t know how. He was seen, heard, and he had finally found himself.
Tyrone was released in October, 2019. One day shortly after his release, he ran into someone who remembered him from prison and said Tyrone inspired him there with his attitude, demeanor and his principles. That person’s name was Edwin, and he had just graduated from Turning Leaf. Edwin told Tyrone that he wanted to pay the favor forward by giving him Turning Leaf’s information and encouraging him to enroll. Tyrone enrolled in the program based on the strength of Edwin’s referral.
Tyrone’s says the Turning Leaf classes give language and structure to the principles he started learning and practicing in prison. Those same principles taught to him by his mentors in prison are now being taught as “skills” through the Turning Leaf curriculum to help him create a new life on the outside. His mentors would be proud.
We’re proud of you, too, Tyrone, and we know you’ll pay the favor forward when you see someone who could use our help.
Some kids are lucky enough to grow up loved. Even if their family’s circumstances aren’t great, they still know the feeling of love and acceptance. Of being wanted.
The injuries inflicted upon a child whose life is absent of love can take a lifetime to heal. Randy spent his life looking for the kind of support and affection he never got at home, and unfortunately, he looked in a lot of the wrong places before he made his way to Turning Leaf.
This is Randy’s story.
Randy’s mom and dad split up before his first memories. He grew up with three siblings and mother in Savannah. Randy’s mom always worked and paid the bills, but in many important ways she chose not to be a parent. She was loud, full of life, always up for a good time, but her good time didn’t involve her children. “She was going to live her life” Randy said. “She went out a lot and when she was home, she didn’t pay attention to me unless I was getting into trouble. She would dress like a movie star and me and my brothers would be in dirty clothes. I never, ever, ever got what I wanted for Christmas. Ever.” His mom made it clear that she wasn’t interested in him. Randy’s older sister of five years raised him and his two brothers.
At nine Randy reunited with his dad. He escaped to his dad’s house whenever he could. It was a place with more structure but not the emotional investment that Randy needed. His dad’s attitude was “get what you need yourself and stay out of my way.” There was a lack of accountability in both households. When Randy got into trouble at school his dad came to pick him up but didn’t talk to the teachers or Randy about the incident. He didn’t yell or get upset. His mom took a different approach. She beat him when he was in trouble but otherwise ignored him. When he was ten years old, Randy stayed out all night long and no one came looking for him.
Randy spent the next 20 years of his life looking for the love he didn’t get when he was young.
The best thing in Randy’s life was school. He lived with his mom in a Section 8 housing complex which meant he was bused to a nearby magnet school with a mix of white kids from better neighborhoods, and mainly black kids from the housing projects. He liked school and his teachers. When he was in fourth grade, he wanted to be a marine biologist. Everything changed when he moved neighborhoods and was forced to attend the neighborhood public school. In fifth grade Randy was being taught what he had already learned in third grade. He became disengaged and frustrated. He complained to his mom that he couldn’t stay in the new school, but she didn’t listen. In sixth grade things got bad. Randy thought, “If they don’t care about my education, why should I?” He began skipping school, and when he did go, it was only to sell candy and hang out with girls. Randy was sent to an alternative school and dropped out in eighth grade. By the time he was 13 he was staying away from home for a week at a time and no one cared.
Women became his focus. The interpersonal connection he could make with women fascinated him. By the time he was 20 he had three children. He was working what he calls dead-end jobs. “I’d get my paycheck and it’d be gone within 24 hours. I always worked. Sometimes I even worked two jobs, but I couldn’t figure out how to survive on the little money I got, so I always did other illegal things too – sell drugs and steal cars.” Randy was arrested for the first time at 20 for stealing a car. He served a short sentence in jail, but he didn’t change his behavior. Randy went to prison four times over the next eleven years. One time he was only out for 35 days before he was re-arrested.
He knew what he was doing was stupid. And for the most part, he knew he was going to get caught. So why didn’t he stop? “I was a follower. I wanted my friends to know I had their back. I
did things I didn’t want to do, things I knew were stupid, because I was looking for love. I was looking for acceptance.”
During Randy’s last prison term something changed. He was transferred to a prison yard where he had access to meaningful programs. He learned about business, real estate, textiles, horticulture and custodial maintenance. He began talking with men who had run successful businesses and had made real money before going to prison. These men were asking for his thoughts on ideas. They cared about his opinion. Randy’s image of himself slowly started to change. He began to think, “If they did it, why can’t I?”
Randy was released from prison in November. He’s not going back to Savannah, to his old people and places. His plan is to start a new life in Charleston with the help of Turning Leaf. His major goals right now? Complete Turning Leaf. Enroll in school. Find a job that will pay him a living wage. And learn how to accept and love himself for who he is today.
You’ve got this, Randy! We’re behind you, all the way!
For our first post in the #tlpstories series we sat down with our student Byron to learn about his story. We talked about his childhood, the decisions he made that kept him cycling in and out of prison, what brought him to Turning Leaf, and where he is taking his life now. His is a story like so many others – youth and confidence and that devil-may-care feeling that keeps so many young people on the streets despite the damage it’s doing to their lives. There’s always a turning point, though. At least for the students at Turning Leaf.
This is Byron’s story.
Byron grew up in the country surrounded by women: his mother, his grandma, and his aunts. As the only child – and a boy, no less – he was very loved, and possibly spoiled. When he was ten, things changed, though. The family moved to the city. There, Byron began to feel isolated. He was an outcast among the city kids: he wore cowboy boots, his voice and accent were different, and he didn’t fit in. He learned how to fight.
As he got older, fighting became second nature. So did street life. On the streets, Byron saw things he wasn’t used to seeing. He saw older kids drinking, smoking, and realized that he would “look cool” or “be a badass” if he were to join them. Before long, he started selling drugs, which of course led to other criminal behavior. And, of course, he got caught.
Byron landed in juvenile detention where he had to fight in order to survive. He fought his way to the top of the food chain in juvie, which gave him even more confidence, and made him think he was definitely on the right path. When he got out, he went back to the same life style – selling drugs, carrying guns, and stealing.
At 18, he got caught up on a new charge and went to prison. There, he noticed that most of the other guys were ones he had been in juvie with as well. Soon he was back on top of the food chain. This was an easy thing for him; he liked the feeling of confidence that came with being on top. Why would he change when everywhere he went, he was in charge? So the cycle continued: prison, home, crimes, prison, home, crimes
Byron’s mother tried to stop him. She tried to break the cycle. But young and confident as he was, Byron didn’t listen. He thought since he was becoming a man, he needed a male influence to help his decisions, not another woman. She told him that he was going to get into something that he couldn’t get out of, and Byron’s most recent prison sentence was it.
Up to that point, Byron’s prison sentences were all relatively short: one year, a few months, nothing too crazy. But then he was sent up for ten years. It was the first time he was sent to prison since his children were born, and right away he realized it was time to do whatever he could to be there for his them. He started to better himself.
He took his prison time day by day. He stopped fighting and started working on his education instead. He got his GED, take drug and alcohol classes, read a lot, got involved in the work program, and listen to music to help himself cope. Unfortunately, during his sentence, despite his hard work, he lost a lot. He got a divorce, lost his sister, an aunt, and his mother. This was another huge turning point for Byron. From then on, he had to get straight and do everything to get better for himself and for others because time is short.
Byron spent his weeks at Turning Leaf living in a halfway house to avoid a commute; this made it far easier to stick with the program. His goals were to get a job, save some money, get his license back and get a car. He’s also focused on spending time with his children to make up for what missed during his eight-year sentence. His ex-wife isn’t always able to bring his kids to see him which is tough; he still can’t be a father the way he would like to. But Byron won’t give up.
He’s a hard worker and always held a job, even when he was living the street lifestyle. The streets raised him, and although he still has that mentality in the back of his mind, it doesn’t mean anything to him anymore. He no longer feels that he needs to turn to the streets to feel like a man. Since being out of prison, he hasn’t been in any situations that have made him want to turn back. He can’t do any more time. His oldest daughter just turned 17, and when he left she was only nine. He will not put himself in any situations that are going to jeopardize his situation or his freedom.
Byron is on a good path for success, for being a man, and being free. Coming out of prison it was difficult for him to still have quality time with his family. He copes by talking to them constantly. He was always a standup father prior to going to prison, and he made sure they were all provided for, but now he knows he could have done it differently.
He plans to bust his tail to take care of his family, even if it means working two jobs. He has six kids, ranging in age from eight to seventeen, and they are worth all the hard work and sacrifice. He is so amazed and proud of them and how they have progressed while he was in prison. He plans to see them in October when he is able to move closer, and is excited to see the people they have grown into.
In the next few months, Byron is focusing on getting his license back. He is enrolled in a drug and alcohol class as well as a driving class. Before being in prison he was an alcoholic but now he is able to say that without being ashamed, which is something he would have been able to do before now. The driving classes run until July, when he can take his permit and drivers test, finally getting his license back (he lost it long ago for recklessness, drinking and driving).
Over the past many months, Byron has had a lot of time to come up with a plan to make sure he won’t jeopardize his freedom. He is patiently working toward October, when he will complete all his classes and become the father he wants to be for his children.
Keep on going, Byron! We are so proud, and know you can be the father your children need!
Sinclair is a recent graduate of Turning Leaf who is moving on to his new job and new life, grounded by what he’s learned during his time with us. His story feels similar to so many of the stories we hear: the crush of a childhood lived in poverty, compounded by that all-too-familiar feeling that you don’t have the right tools to escape. It led Sinclair to a life of crime that landed him in federal prison for four and a half years, a place to which he never wants to return. We’ve been working hard to give him the right tools to keep him out of prison for the rest of his life.
We are so proud of how far you’ve come, Sinclair! Thank you for sharing your story.
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Sinclair’s childhood was loud: seventeen people lived crowded together in his grandmother’s 5-bedroom house. He was surrounded by sisters, cousins, aunts, uncles, but most especially his parents and his granny. Granny’s rules were strict, he says. “You have to be in the house before the streetlight comes on. If you ain’t, she’d send an uncle to come look for you, and you know once they come looking for us, it’s over. The belt is coming.”
All those children piled into the single house because it was close to school; if they stayed there, they could get to school every day without having to take the city bus. Sinclair’s granny was a positive influence, or at least she tried to be. “She was always telling me my friends ain’t my friends,” he says. “Stay out of trouble, ‘cuz your friends ain’t your friends.” She knew the lure of bad behavior and easy money, and she tried to protect him.
The warnings fell on deaf ears, though. At least when Sinclair was younger. He saw his family didn’t have much, and he saw how hard his mom had to work to provide the bare minimum. He thought, “I ain’t gonna be like that. I’m gonna make it on my own.”
It didn’t help that he struggled in school. Reading and writing didn’t come easily to Sinclair. He spent time in a resource classroom, where other kids had similar learning issues, but that didn’t stop him from feeling shame. He told no one else of his troubles, holding it on the inside, keeping it secret.
He began to notice some of his friends had all the things he wanted. One friend in particular, he saw, had all the jewelry. All the clothes. All the trainers. “He used to ask me, when are you getting these new trainers, and I had to say I don’t have the money for that.” Instead, Sinclair had to ask his father or his sister to give him $50. That wasn’t how he wanted to live his life.
A week later, at 17 years old, Sinclair started selling drugs. It was so easy. He took $30 cash he’d received from his aunt for taking out her trash and cleaning her yard and bought $100 worth of drugs to sell. He moved those, kept $50 in his pocket, and used the other $50 to buy more drugs. He dropped out of school that year and would continue selling drugs until he was 31 years old. “I lived the criminal life,” he says, “Because I knew I didn’t have what it takes to get the job, and I’ve gotta do something to get money.”
Of course you can’t live a criminal life without trouble finding. you
Sinclair’s first arrest came when an acquaintance pushed him to sell drugs to an undercover cop. Sinclair had a bad feeling about the sale but went ahead anyway. For that, he got a slap on the wrists and probation, but that was just the first time. Eventually, he got caught up in a gun violation, since he always had a gun on him. “For protection,” he says. “Always for protection.” The charge could have carried up to ten years in federal prison. On his day in court, he saw his mother and sister crying and knew how much he had hurt them. When he was allowed to address the judge, he said, “Sir, I know I did wrong. If you take light on me, you won’t ever have to worry about seeing me in your courtroom again. I’ll do the best I can to stay out of trouble.”
He meant it.
The five-year sentence was a relief – people around him had 30, even 40 years – but prison itself wasn’t. Federal prison is no joke. There are so many rules you can’t even walk on the grass. If you get locked down – often, if anyone messes up, they lock a whole unit down – you spend five days inside your room. Your meals are always the same: bologna sandwich and water, served through the locked door.
In prison, Sinclair saw three people get stabbed. One of them wound up in ICU after five people attacked him. Sinclair knew something had to change. He had to stay out of there.
He spent his prison days spending time with people who had positive attitudes. He’d do his assigned chores, visit the library, take naps. Anything to keep out of trouble, staying away from the “nonsense” of prison. He learned there were others like him, others who struggled with reading and writing. Sometimes they would ask Sinclair for help with their canteen sheets. He learned not to be ashamed of his struggles. He was not alone.
Finally, his time served, Sinclair was released, first to a halfway house for six months, then home. His father knew someone who’d been through Turning Leaf and told Sinclair about the program. He came here, in his words, telling everyone who would listen, “to get a strong head on my shoulders so I can get a nice job.”
It’s been life changing. At Turning Leaf Sinclair learned he could always ask for help. He learned skills like “stop and think” to keep himself focused and on the right track. His goals now are simple: get a job, get his own place, and stay out of trouble.
“The streets aren’t what you’re hunting for,” he says. “And to anyone out there with a little trouble with their reading and their education, don’t let that stop you from doing what you have to do to live a normal lifestyle. Turning Leaf is right here for you.”
* * *.*
That’s right, Sinclair. We are here for you, now and always, and we are so proud of all that you’ve accomplished already. We can’t wait to see how bright your future is!