Mack

Mack’s chosen name is Immacule, a name that means immaculate. It was given to him by his grandmother, who wanted him to aspire to be something better than the life she knew lay before him from the moment he took his first breath.

However, a name wasn’t enough to protect Mac from a generational cycle of crime and brutality. It wasn’t enough to hide him from the life he was born to. It wasn’t enough to keep him safe from the kind of abuse that haunts every parent’s nightmares.

Today, at 44, he hopes that sharing his story can help people see the truth: that no past is an excuse to live a life you’re not proud of.

This is Mack’s story.

Mack grew up going between two homes that were complete opposites. His parents split when he was about three, but during their time together, his father abused his mother violently. Of course, Mack didn’t know this at the time. He only knew, he says, “my mother went to church Tuesday night, Wednesday night, Thursday night, most nights. When I was with her she’d take me to church or a Tupperware meeting.”

His father, on the other hand, was a lucrative drug dealer who didn’t hide his business dealings from any of his children, including Mack. His grandfather was a business owner, but also dealt in illegal activities. They were, in Mack’s words, gangsters.

And yet, as Mack says, “I knew my mother loved me, but that was the more hurtful house. I look a lot like my father, and I know now that every time she saw me, she saw him.” That was tough for Mack, who only wanted his mother to love him. She had 13 siblings, and, says Mack, “I got a lot of cousins. I can’t remember my mother hugging and kissing me, but she always hugged and kissed my cousins and my brother.” Mack tried his hardest to get her attention, often acting out. “I’d rather have her beat me than ignore me,” he says.

Her house also wasn’t safe for Mack. There, he says, her siblings “would ask me if I loved my father. If I said yes, they’d punch me or kick me down. It was violence, unnecessary stuff, but they hated my father for what he did to my mother.”

His mother’s house of God was also a house of danger and sadness to Mack.

At his father’s, things were completely different. “Boys weren’t really allowed to be children,” he says. “We got up in the morning, cleaned up behind the dogs, cleaned the house, and dressed like a gentleman. But it was good to feel like I was important, like I was his little man.” There, he also had his grandmother. “I never knew a moment of not having love and affection when I was with her,” he says.

Yet it was with his father that he learned the street life. “My father didn’t hide anything from me and my siblings,” he says. “When I was carrying little brown bags from one street to another, or to other projects, it never seemed illegal. I never looked inside the bags. I was just doing what my father asked me to.”

Early on, he found approval on the streets. His father was a musician – a guitarist – and everyone came to know Mack as “Sam’s son.” There were pats on the head, hugs, kisses. His father’s world was, for Mack, the one full of love and affection.

It was also, however, extraordinarily dangerous, as Mack would learn when a man his father assaulted exacted revenge on an innocent little boy. “My father beat him and made him suck on a gun barrel,” says Mack. “I guess he felt it was necessary to put something in my mouth to punish me for what my father did.”

Mack was only eight years old when it happened. In his world, he was taught to respect his elders; no one ever told him not to talk to strangers. Around the apartment complexes in which he lived, everyone knew everyone else, and people looked out for one another. So when a man he didn’t know asked Mack to show him to the back door to an apartment, Mack did.
“As soon as we got back there,” Mack says, “I felt his hand grab the back of my shirt. He didn’t say anything. He just started punching me. I wanted to get away but I couldn’t. He was so strong. I’m not even sure of any of the words he said. I wasn’t really paying attention. But the next thing I knew he put his penis in my mouth.”

It was then that a neighbor came out. She screamed and hit the man with a broom to get him away from Mack. She grabbed the boy and took him to his mother.

“I don’t remember crying,” says Mack. “I was upset. Embarrassed. But it wasn’t just over what was done, but that someone saw. On the walk home, my face and mouth were bleeding. There were kids all over. My neighbor told my mother what happened, and parents started dragging their kids away. I didn’t really understand.”

Mack’s mother washed his mouth out with Listerine and tended to his bruises, but they didn’t talk about what happened. The police came and caught Mack’s abuser. No one told him it wasn’t his fault. The next day his mother took him to church where, he says, “everyone is talking to me. They want to pray for me, lay their hands on me. But I didn’t want anybody to touch me, and I really didn’t want to be around men right then.” He kept waiting for his mother to explain what had happened, but she never did.

Nor did his father, at least not exactly. “I took care of it,” is all is father said. Later, about a month after Mack’s grandfather died, Mack saw his father cry for the first time. “I allowed someone to hurt you,” his father said, and Mack knew that what had happened was just as bad as he feared.

Things didn’t improve for Mack after that. It was the early 1980s, and Mack’s father told him, “I don’t care what he did to you, you ain’t never gonna be a sissy.” Mack’s father said to his women friends, “Teach my son how to be a man,” and a cycle of abuse at the instruction of his father through the hands of older women began that would continue for four years.

“It was flattering at first,” says Mack, who was still only eight when the abuse began. “But then it was awful. I mean, it was odd. I was embarrassed for the individuals I was growing up with. Some of them were their mothers. They didn’t know, but I knew.” He didn’t want to do it, but he also didn’t want to displease his father. He’d do anything to avoid the disconnect he felt at his mother’s house.

When he was twelve, Mack developed a crush on a girl in his class, and said to his father, “I don’t want to be with older women anymore. Can I have my own girlfriend?” His father told him if he was ready to go ahead, and the abuse stopped. “All I ever had to do was ask,” says Mack. But how could he have known that?

All Mack knew, from that point on, was that he never wanted to be hurt by anyone again. “I’ve never been a gangster,” he says. “My grandfather was a gangster. My father was a gangster, but not me. I’ve always been super aggressive because I was scared.”

He’d never back away from a fight, whether in school or on the streets. In fact, he’d escalate them. If a kid teased him, he’d punch him in the mouth. If a kid punched him, he’d pick up a board or a knife to fight harder.

He idolized his father and fell easily into his world from there. “I wanted to be him,” says Mack. “He was 6’5, 260 pounds of masculinity and everything I looked up to. I never learned to sell drugs with my homies. Instead I learned to sell drugs and use drugs with my father. ‘If you’re gonna sell drugs,’ he’d say, ‘you have to know what they’re using.’”

Mack’s street life escalated and it felt good. “We were hustling together,” he says. “He was my OG, my father, and if he did it, I did it. If I was on the porch and my dad was inside, people knew they could deal with me. I was invited to parties, to sell at clubs. I was ‘L’il Hell’ and they paid me to show up. I was somebody, you now? Girls love me, dudes respect me, and I’m never turning back. It was fun…for a while.”

As his life was moving forward, his father’s was declining. “My father had five strokes in two years,” he says. “I was staying with my mother more, and I realized: if I’m around you, I can’t do those things I like to do. So I moved out and started staying with my aunts. They knew what I was doing, but as long as I paid my rent, the cable bill, and gave them bingo money, it was fine.”

Most of his friends were older, and they were all doing the same things: driving nice cars, wearing all the right jewelry, convinced nothing would ever happen to them. “We were children trying to play grown men,” he says, in a world that was growing more and more violent. The fights of childhood morphed into shootouts at clubs. “I was in clubs six nights a week,” says Mack. “If I’m not getting in one shootout a week, sometimes two, it’s weird.”

Through it all, he never felt like a man. His grandmother always told him to grow up, settle down. “That’s hot how a grown man acts,” she’d say. “That’s how a little boy acts.”

“The streets made me feel safe,” he says. “The streets give you a false sense of identity. They give you a false sense of love and once you realize it ain’t love, it’s abuse, it’s too late. You gotta carry a gun to survive? How is that love? It’s just stress and strain. You can’t love yourself being involved in the drug ring. If you love yourself and you love life, you won’t put yourself in a situation where you can lose life.”

At the time, though, he didn’t see a way out. He tried to end his life. “I tried to shoot myself, twice. I pulled the trigger, twice. The gun didn’t go off. I had the same gun with me an hour later at a shootout. It was in the glove compartment and I pulled it out and I emptied the entire clip no problem.” He’s not sure how he survived. “I don’t know,” he says. “Luck? God? It wasn’t my time, but it was time to grow up.”

After a brief stint in Houston, where he was severely beaten and robbed when a couple of guys broke into his apartment expecting to find dope, he was sent by his parole officer back to Charleston. A snafu with the paperwork almost landed him back in prison, a frustrating setback that sent him off the rails again. “I thought, if they (officials) don’t have to have their ducks in a row, then why should I?” Soon  he got caught on a bank robbery and sent to prison for a 30-year sentence. “My first week there I watched a man get murdered in church over an argument over who’d get to play the piano. Week after week,” he says, “I watched men getting stabbed and butchered in federal penitentiary. And they told me jail would be safe?”

He had to fight to survive at first, though he just wanted to settle in and do his time. He started going to church, teaching bible study classes, and trying to focus on his own spirituality. But when that wasn’t sparking the internal changes he was looking for, a warden stepped in. “She told me, ‘When you take something we tell you to, it’s for us and not you. Y’all are grown men. Why not take something you don’t get credit for, but you can grow from?’” So Mack and some of his fellow inmates began SOS – Saving OurSelves – and began to put in the work on themselves. While there, Mack wrote to his original abuser. “I forgive you,” he said. “You must have been really sick to do what you did.” He learned about other ways to live, ways to let go of his anger. “Seeing what I grew through, it taught me how to help others. I knew my parents loved me the best way they knew how,” he says. “But if nobody tells you not to punish yourself for what your parents did to you, they’ll continue to live that way.” In short, you have to let go of the past to move into the future, and that’s what Mack is trying to do today.

His father passed away a number of years ago and his mother is suffering from dementia. Mack has been out of prison now for four months. He’s dealing with a lot of stress, but credits Turning Leaf for helping him get through it. “Life is stressful ,but I’m committed to the process of growing and changing,” he says. “I’m staying with my brother and his wife. I’ve got two part time jobs, I’m trying to make ends meet, and I’ve got a long road ahead of me.”

“Turning Leaf is the best thing for me. The emotions of being overwhelmed coming straight out of prison are hard enough. Not having outlets or resources would be impossible. I don’t manage well under stress, but Turning Leaf is helping. I’m not wearing a mask anymore. I always have been but I’m getting to a place where I can just be vulnerable. Wearing a mask, I won’t get any of the help I know I need to succeed.”

We are so glad you found us, Mack. With all you’ve seen and been through, and with your heart and understanding of the world around you, we’re just grateful to be here to watch you grow!

Story Captured by Leah Rhyne

Chris

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb in his skin and walk around in it.”

Those words, written by Harper Lee for the iconic fictional lawyer Atticus Finch, seem to have been written about Chris, a Turning Leaf student whose path through the program has been full of complications.

To the outside world, Chris might resemble any other black man who has led a life of crime filled with drugs, guns, and brutality. But inside his skin, you’ll find a life full of loss and a man grappling with his future. You’ll find an aching heart. You’ll find an earnest desire to do better.

This is Chris’ story.

Chris grew up in the country. On his grandparents’ farm his grandfather instilled in him his work ethic: if Chris stayed there, his day included hard work. “Wake up, feed the livestock. Go to school. Come home, feed the livestock. Do your homework. Maybe then you have some play time,” he says. On Saturdays in the wintertime, he and his grandfather cut wood for the family – Chris’ mother, auntie, and grandmother.

Sundays were for family. There was church in your Sunday best, he says, and “then back to grandma and grandpa’s for Sunday dinner.” He knew the joy of love, the satisfaction of being a provider.

At the center of it all, for Chris, was his mother. His Moms. His rock and his anchor. She was a schoolteacher known for her sternness, her strength, and her favorite aphorism: Excuses only satisfy those who make them. “She was a pillar of the community, says Chris, “and of the family.”

When Chris lost his father to lung disease, he was only 9 years old, and he lost the closest male role model in his life. “I understood what was happening,” he says. “But looking back, I can see it distanced me from people. I was outgoing before he died.” From his father he learned a love of motorcycles and cars; trips to school on the back of his pops’ Honda 1000 chopper ended, but his love remained.

Chris and his mother grew closer in their shared grief. “She had to take on the role of a father,” he says. “She tried to teach me the things a man has to do.” His very best memory of her is from a trip they took to Disney World about six months after his father passed. “We talked a lot while we were there. She was telling me how much she loved me, and about my pops, how much he loved me too.”

The best part of the memory, though, is, “It was the first time I watched my mother let her hair down and have fun. We’d jump on the rides and just kind of relax.” He remembers Space Mountain best, as he loved science and his mother had been teaching him about the planets and the solar system.

Things started to fall apart for him back home, though, despite his mother’s best efforts to teach him right from wrong. “I got a little rebellious,” he says. “I started talking back. As time passed, my rebellious streak grew. I started to engage more outside in the streets, watching more. I had uncles and older cousins engaged in the streets. I dabbled in smoking weed.”

Chris had his first run-in with the police when he was only in middle school. After a hurricane, a few towns had to combine schools, and there was a definite town rivalry. “I started taking weapons to school,” says Chris. “Razor blades. One day a friend got into an altercation. He asked me for a razor blade, and I gave it to him.” The friend got caught and said the blade came from Chris. “They called me to the principal’s office and searched me and they found where I kept my blade.” The result was a trip to the station downtown and an overnight stay.

“Moms was a teacher at the same school,” says Chris. “She wanted me to learn a lesson. She didn’t even come pick me up. She had a friend, a mentor, come get me, and she let me know what was going on.”

The result, though, was a little slap on the wrist for Chris, which did nothing to curb his rebelliousness. “After the slap on the wrist,” he says, “I started progressing. I’d sneak out to go to a hangout, a little hole in the wall where we’d watch the guys on the streets. I started picking up tricks, rebelling, sneaking out even more.” He smoked marijuana, and though he dealt, he never “dabbled” in any of the harder drugs himself. “The height of my criminal activity was a lot of drug selling and robberies. Dumb crimes,” he says.

By the time he was 19, his mother kicked him out of the house. She knew what was going on and saw she couldn’t stop it. She tried to teach him a lesson. It didn’t work. They continued communicating, but they weren’t as close as they were when Chris was small. “I had a choice back then,” he said. “I had to make money. I could work hard or try to make fast money. I chose the fast money.”

Chris caught his first big charge for robbery when he was 25. When bonding out from charges for possessing both marijuana and firearms depleted his stash of cash, he and a friend decided to rob a colleague. They planned it, executed it, but the colleague turned Chris in. The charges were strong arm robbery and possession with intent for both marijuana and cocaine. Chris was sentenced to three years and served 18 months.

“After prison,” he says, “I felt like I had to make up for lost time, and I got right back in the game.”  The simple charges added up – driving with suspended license, assault – until things got violent with a girlfriend and Chris caught another three-year sentence, then another in 2016. Everything was spiraling out of control.

Through it all, his mother stayed in the picture, albeit from afar. That changed when, with 20 or so days to go on his last sentence, Chris got called down to the chaplain’s office. “That was the longest walk of my life,” says Chris. “That’s where you get the bad news.”

His mother was sick. His daughter’s mother had called to tell him his mother was in the hospital. “My mom was strong, though,” he says. “I kept telling myself, she’ll be alright, she’ll be alright, she’ll be alright.”

His first stop when he got out of prison was her hospital room. There, he got a major reality check. “She had knee problems, but now her legs were the size of tree trunks. She couldn’t walk, she couldn’t do things for herself. To see the woman you’ve known your whole life look at you and tell you she’s hurting…but I’m still thinking, ‘she’ll get better, she’ll get better.’”

Once his mother came home, he realized how bad the situation was. Chris began to work hard to support himself and his mother. He got a job and kept it. He rented a house across the street from where his mother lived with his grandmother and his auntie, and had his girlfriend move in. Together, they tried to help nurse his mother back to help. It was a lot of pressure but there were benefits, too. “Growing up,” says Chris, “my moms and I had a bond, but it wasn’t as close as it was before she passed. That’s when I got closest to her in all my life.”

The night before she passed, the two talked for hours. “She was talking about my daughter,” says Chris. “My daughter was her heart. She was telling me what she was going to order for my daughter for Easter. An Easter dress.”

That night, too, she said, “Chris, take care of yourself.” He says, “She told me she saw me make some changes in my life that she was proud of. She saw me working hard, getting my own place, trying to get my life together. I promised her I’d be alright.” By the time Chris went to check on her the next morning, she was gone.

It was like a bad dream. “I never thought I’d see that day,” he says. “The life I was living, I always used to tell myself, ‘I’m sorry for Moms – she’s gonna have to bury me.’” Now Chris had to plan her funeral.

Chris found Turning Leaf a month after his mother’s death. His journey here hasn’t been an easy one. He had to take a few weeks off to get his head straight and handle some family issues, and his grief is still raw. The program is helping him, though. “I’m learning how to use skills I never really knew how to use. Communicating with others, problem solving. They’re teaching me how to deal with my aggression. How to calm down, how not to let my emotions take over.”

His goal is to get his CDL and one day own his own trucking company. He knows his mother would be proud of him if she could see him now. “Moms didn’t show a lot of emotions, but you’d know what she’s thinking.” He pauses for a moment, his own emotions on full display. “You don’t appreciate a person when they’re here as much as you appreciate them when they’re gone.”

Chris, for you to be working so hard right now, in the middle of your grief, shows us how far you will go. We are here for you every step of the way.

Story Captured by Leah Rhyne

Aulzue “Blue”

We’ve shared a lot of stories on this blog. We’ve talked about the street life. Drugs. Robberies and brutality. We’ve considered violence as an addiction exactly like any other. Every addict eventually hits rock bottom; the best they can hope for is to not hurt anyone on their way down.

Before coming to Turning Leaf, graduating from our program and becoming one of our most beloved staff members and team mentors, Blue hit rock bottom. A life of unchecked anger and aggression led to a single moment, a single act, that can never be undone. Let us be clear up front this week: this is not a story for the faint of heart. This is a story that involves the death of a child, a tragedy unlike any we’ve discussed before. This is not an easy story.

But this is Blue’s story.

Blue is the youngest of four children. His mother was a working, single mother, who tried her hardest to provide for her children. She worked a lot but always did her best to instill in them right from wrong.

Blue’s father was a huge part of his life. He was raised to believe the man was head of the household, and his father certainly provided for his family. To Blue, his father was nothing short of a superhero. “At the time,” he says, “He could do no wrong.”

However, Blue’s father was living a difficult life. He was a large man – over six and a half feet tall – who was very vocal and willing to stand up for his beliefs. From his involvement in the Black Panther party and rallies against social injustice to his dealings on the street, selling weed, his was a face and name well known by Charleston police. “He’d always let you know what he was thinking,” says Blue.

When Blue was eight years old, his father, he says, “was hanging on the block, selling weed. Some cops came along, doing their thing.” His father caused trouble, talking back to the police. There were four cops and two men: Blue’s father and one other. “Words were exchanged. He was mouthy. It got physical.”

More police came. They hit Blue’s father in the head more than a few times, then got him in handcuffs and put him in the squad car. His injuries were extreme, however, and he died on the way from the county jail to the hospital.

Of course, eight-year-old Blue didn’t understand any of that; he only knew his father, his provider, his superhero, was gone.

In Blue’s mind, it was time for him to step up and become man of the house. “I wanted to provide for my mom and sister,” he says. His brothers were already grown and gone. “Education became the back burner. I wanted to make sure we had what we wanted and what we needed.”

By nine, he says, “I began to dabble in the streets. I was holding packages [containing drugs] for the older guys.” He noticed the older guys dropped their packages any time the cops came around, and he came to a realization: “Instead of earning a couple of dollars for holding their stuff, why not just take the packages and start selling?” A nine-year-old drug dealer was born.

As he got older and began to grasp the implications of his father’s death at the hands of police, he grew angrier and bolder. “I thought, hey, if they can do what they did to my father, I can do whatever I want to.” But the reality was that he didn’t actually know what he was getting himself into. “I was just out there,” he says, “trying to do things to mask the pain, to get some understanding on life, but still uphold this role that I thought I was supposed to be: the man of the house.”

He stopped going to school in the 6th grade, learning fast to dodge truancy officers. His street life escalated as he found his footing and his friends; they’d periodically jump students from the Citadel and the College of Charleston to steal their bikes and backpacks. He shoplifted, getting busted after stealing a backpack full of stuff from JC Penney and beating up the security guard. They sent him to juvie for that, and for 45 days he fought his way through there, running wild, wreaking havoc. Back home, he tried to behave but his life was already on a violent trajectory; he went to school for a couple of weeks, knowing his entire family was watching him, but as soon as they relaxed, he was straight back on the streets. A second stint at juvie – six months this time – earned him a reputation as a tough guy, and things escalated from there.

By 15, Blue was stealing cars, robbing people, and selling drugs full time. His mother gave him an ultimatum. “I want you here,” she said. “But you’re making choices that say you don’t want to be here.” His options: stay and go back to school or leave.

Blue left and didn’t look back.

He lived with various women for the next few years, paying their bills to prove his worth as “man of the house.” He may have kept doing that forever, but then he met a different kind of girl, the girl who would eventually become his wife and would stand by his side through everything that was to come.

He saw her at a bus stop with a girlfriend one day. She was a student at the College of Charleston, and when she ignored his pursuits, he begged her friend to give him her phone number. Blue was persistent. He called and called, until she finally answered. They talked for five minutes. “She told me,” he says, “’Here’s my life. I’m going to go to college, graduate, and become something. The life you’re living doesn’t work for what I want, so you can stop calling me.’”

Blue laughs. “Man, I knew I had to get that girl,” he says. “All I knew was crime, though. I tried to make changes. I started working, but I didn’t have the tools to actually keep any jobs. I wanted someone like her in my life, though. I wanted to learn from her.” She told Blue he couldn’t be with her and in the streets, making him prove his money came from legitimate sources by showing her his pay stubs before she’d let him pay for anything on their dates.

Blue tried. He tried so hard. He spent years trying, working job after job, never managing to keep one for very long. He moved to New York when his girlfriend was pregnant with their first child, hoping a fresh start would set him on the right path. But when his sister went missing and he didn’t show up for work one day – he was trying to find her – he lost that job too. He was able to get into the street life in New York to pay the bills, but realized people up there were more physically violent than in Charleston. People came after his family up there, so he returned to Charleston and got a job as a landscaper.

Married, now, and with a baby, he kept on trying. He attended church with his wife, but he always had too many questions. “At church, they were always telling you what to do,” he says. “It was do do do do do. When I’d ask questions, they’d say, ‘that’s just the devil in you.’” It was too much pressure for a guy who was living on the edge; he turned back to marijuana, lacing it with cocaine, and the street life. A kid pulled a gun on him one day, and he thought it was the end. Still, he couldn’t get away from the streets.

Here’s where things get really hard to fathom. Here’s where Blue really started to falter. He had two lives: the straight life with his wife and children, in which he took job after job trying to live up to the standards as the man of the household. He also had a second life, another woman who accepted the street side of him. She didn’t ask where his money came from. There, he found acceptance, for a while.

One night, he was babysitting for her son, and the toddler wouldn’t stop crying. “He was crying and crying,” says Blue. “And before I realized it, I had hit him.” Closed fist, in the belly.

“As soon as I did it,” he says, “I was like ‘Aw, man. I’m sorry.’” He checked and checked the boy to see if he was okay. When his girlfriend got home, he told her the child fell off the bed. She checked her son again and again, but thought he was fine.

Later, though, it was clear: something was wrong. The little boy wasn’t himself. Together they took him to the hospital, where Blue repeated his story. The child fell off the bed. It wasn’t his fault.

There were unseen injuries, though: a lacerated liver and unchecked internal bleeding.

The little boy died.

It was Blue’s fault.

The next day, he confessed. “I realized I had ruined enough lives,” he says. It was his rock bottom, the moment he realized he had to become a better person. “I don’t want to do any more damage.”

Blue was tried for the murder of the child and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. He was at peace with the sentence almost immediately and pledged to use the time to become the person he wanted to be. “I’m a caring person,” he says. “I love kids. For me to have done that…it didn’t line up with who I am.”

From that moment on, Blue began to change for the better. His wife stayed by his side through everything. Blue served 17 years of his 20-year sentence, and his wife visited him three times a month the whole time. She’d bring their kids twice each month. He got to watch them grow, although the guilt over letting everyone down was overwhelming. “I felt like less than a man because I was constantly causing people pain,” he says. One day his daughter told him there was going to be a Daddy/Daughter Day at school. “You should bring your uncle,” he told her, to which she replied that it was not Uncle/Niece Day. He fussed at her for sassing, and then watched as she closed herself off to him. With the separation in their worlds, it took years to repair the damage caused by that one moment, and Blue took note of it. He learned from all of it.

Now, for a moment, imagine with me that you’re Blue. Imagine you’ve lost a father to police brutality. You’ve spent a whole life mistrusting white people, as it’s the white police who killed your father. You’ve just served 17 years in prison for the accidental murder of a little boy, and you’re trying hard to become the person you want to be.

Now imagine you’re faced with Turning Leaf, a program run by white people.

That had to be a difficult moment, but Blue, knowing he needed help, opened himself up to Amy and Joe and the rest of the Turning Leaf staff. There, he found the support to free himself from the patterns of violence and crime that dominated his life. When, following his graduation, Amy offered Blue a job, neither of them knew what it would be. But he took it anyway, and now he never wants to leave. “My job is personal interaction with the guys,” he says. “I give them support. I’m available after hours if they need to talk or want to go out. We have lunch together. We have discussions. With me they can just be themselves, and I hear them out. I can run a class or the print shop if needed. I send letters to men coming out of prison, and I recruit new students. I order supplies.” In short, he keeps the center running, spending his days helping others while he also helps heal himself.

He’s taking the time, too, to build bridges with his family. His wife and children call him “Dr. Phil” sometimes. “I’m putting in the work and watching my relationships heal and mend,” he says. “I’m making sound choices. This is the life I always wanted. In spite of the past, there’s always a possibility for a brighter future.”

A single moment. A single act. It can never be undone, but Blue has shown us – and, most importantly, himself – that with hard work and determination, from rock bottom you can move up, and you can create for yourself a life worthy of pride. A life full of value.

We value you, Blue, beyond belief. Your contributions to the lives of the men at Turning Leaf are beyond compare, and we are lucky to work with you, every single day.

Story Captured by Leah Rhyne

Rickey

It’s hard to imagine a more troubled life than that which Rickey lived in his early years. From the moment of his birth he was surrounded by the street life: users, addicts, aunts and uncles selling drugs from the living room of his grandmother’s house. Before he came to Turning Leaf, he was arrested more than 100 times. How do you even begin to change, when you’ve never known anything other than trouble?

Rickey proved that, with the help of his family at Turning Leaf, anything is possible. He graduated four years ago and is living life on the up-and-up with a successful career and fiancé. He hasn’t been arrested since his graduation day. He’s never going back to jail.

This is Rickey’s story.

“My family was loving but dysfunctional,” says Rickey of his early childhood years. His mother worked a lot; his father was the head of the household, and he tried to make everything good. Family outings, discipline. Things were tough but normal when Rickey was home with his parents, two younger brothers and a baby sister.

However, with both parents working he spent a lot of time at his grandmother’s house. There he was surrounded by the street life. “All the activities were there,” he says. “People were getting high, selling drugs in the neighborhood.”

Rickey was only 13 years old when his father passed away in a car wreck while visiting Rickey’s grandmother in Memphis, Tennessee. “We were real close,” says Rickey. “He was a Navy man, a college graduate. He made sure I was doing my homework, getting good grades. He’d buy me anything I wanted, as long as I was staying out of trouble. Things fell apart after he died.”

In the first place, Rickey was numb. At the funeral, he had to look out for his three younger siblings, but he couldn’t even begin to process the enormity of his loss. “I buried my feelings. I didn’t have anyone to talk to about it, or at least I didn’t think I did.” Normal was a thing of the past; there were no family outings, no family dinners. His mother had to work twice as hard to support her family.

With nothing but numbness at home, Rickey started looking elsewhere, trying to find a place he could belong. He found it on the streets, living life like his aunts and uncles. The life he’d been seeing ever since he was born. The life his parents wanted to keep him from.

In the beginning, Rickey just wanted to make some money. He was tired of asking his aunts and uncles for things. “They’d whoop my ass if they caught me, though,” he says. It wasn’t the aunts and uncles that gave him his start. “It was a bigger cousin who put my first pack in my hands,” he says. “I’d wait until everyone would leave, then I’d sneak out at night to do my own thing. Word got around, and I just got bolder.”

No one wanted him in the street life, of course. “’Stay in school, do your homework,’ they’d say.” He laughs. “Eventually they realized I was hardheaded, and they started giving me the game, showing me the ropes.” It was a done deal from then on: Rickey was immersed in the street life.

And while some people manage to go for years without the police catching up to them, that was never the case for Rickey. “My uncles were always getting in trouble, getting harassed by the police, and I had the same last name,” he says. The police were always aware of what he was doing. “I couldn’t stay out of the eyes of the law.”

From drug busts to counterfeit checks, Rickey’s been hauled in for all sorts of things. He estimates he’s spent at least thirteen years in prison thanks to six federal charges, but the truly shocking number is this: when he asked a woman at the desk at county how many times he’d been arrested, she told him it was over 100 times. “I had no idea it was that much,” he says.  “There I was, thinking I’m some bad-ass. Hearing that changed my state of mind.”

So did a chance meeting with Amy Barch, the Director of Turning Leaf. “I got into her program in County,” says Rickey. “It was about how you think, and it really opened me up.”

He was moved to federal prison shortly thereafter, where he started listening to his fellow inmates. “There was a 22 year old who had 55 years,” he says. “And he’s going around acting like it’s nothing. I thought, I’m not gonna end up like that. I’ve gotta get a different route because this one ain’t working.”

While in prison he wrote to Amy, and she responded. It meant the world Rickey. “It told me someone cared. I didn’t have that support before, but Miss Amy had my back.”

Turning Leaf was a natural next step for a man who wanted to change his life. Rickey entered our program in 2016. “To me,” he says, “Turning Leaf equals change. Changing my life around. It’s a positive support to those who need help and who want help. Turning Leaf…it’s like turning over to improve yourself.” He learned thinking skills, cognitive restructuring, and situational analysis. “It taught me to stay focused with work, setting goals and accomplishing them.”

That’s not to say life’s been super-easy since Rickey graduated from Turning Leaf. At first, he was surrounded by the difficult environment that had set him on the streets to begin with. As he wanted to stay on the crime-free path he was on, he knew he had to make a change. Amy and the team at Turning Leaf were there to help him every step of the way. “Miss Amy helped me get into school at Trident Tech,” he says. He got his commercial driver’s license and a job with a trucking company. He became a lease/operator of his own truck and is saving money to become an owner/operator instead. He spends his days driving around the country, something he never would have dreamed of before. “I’ve been to California and Seattle,” he says. “The scenery is beautiful. I love getting out, seeing a sunrise over the mountains. I’ve seen all different cultures and different places. I love Miss Amy for helping me find this occupation.”

Recently his truck slid on some ice, and he’s had to fix a dent in the bumper and some electrical issues. The cost was over $8000, an astronomical amount that in the past would have overwhelmed Rickey. Nowadays, though, he knows what to do. He got himself set up on a payment plan and has a few months ahead of him to pay it off, all while working and living his regular life. His mom is proud of him; so is his fiancé, a woman he met up in Wisconsin, the state he now calls home. So much has changed in four years, but one thing hasn’t: Rickey hasn’t been arrested since his graduation from Turning Leaf.

“I’m not gonna quit,” he says. “Everybody’s gonna have their own trials. You can’t give up. You have to keep pushing. I’ve been through a lot, and Turning Leaf has helped me so much. And look at me now, Mom. I made you proud!”

You made us proud, too, Rickey. Every day, we are proud of you. Thank you for sharing your success story with us, and we’re cheering you on from South Carolina!

Story Captured by Leah Rhyne