“I’ve always had a strong sense of fairness and equality, and an equally strong belief that people should get a fair shake in life,” said Turning Leaf Founder and Executive Director, Amy Barch, at a recent meeting of the Columbia Rotary Club in Columbia, South Carolina.
Barch was invited, along with Aulzue “Blue” Fields, to share the Turning Leaf story to this group ahead of the organization’s planned October 2021 opening of its second center. Speaking before a crowd of approximately 150 members, Amy first shared a bit of the “why” and “how” of Turning Leaf’s origin.
The United States has 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of its prison population. Since the 1980s there’s been a 500% increase in the country’s incarcerated people due mostly to policy changes and longer sentences. These were just a couple of the statistics that nudged Barch toward launching a nonprofit dedicated to helping formerly incarcerated men re-enter society. In 2011 she quit her day job and began volunteering in prisons during the day while waitressing at night.
The program she created based on proven methodologies includes 150 hours of group cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), one-on-one counseling, transitional employment in the Turning Leaf Print Shop, and post-graduation placement in a job with a livable wage, benefits, and opportunity for advancement.
CBT teaches fundamental life skills, she explained. “CBT is widely recognized as the most effective intervention that can change criminal behavior in youth and adults, in currently and formerly incarcerated populations.” Introducing the audience to Skill 18: Managing Frustrations, she explained how role plays allow Turning Leaf students to practice those skills in a safe environment.
Program graduate and staff member Aulzue “Blue” Fields also shared his story. “I lost my father to police brutality when I was eight years old,” he said. Raised to believe he had to be a man of the house, Fields turned to the streets as a way to make money. His disregard for the rules was established, as was a hatred for police. “These are the people who are supposed to help us, but these are also the people who took my father’s life,” he said.
Fields talked about his childhood on the streets; his seven-month stint in a juvenile detention facility; his 20 years in prison; and his lifetime of regret. “I took a life,” he said. “I have to live with that every single day.”
Turning Leaf’s program helped Fields to turn his life around. “When I got out of prison, I knew I’d rather die trying than go back. All I had left to try was Turning Leaf,” he said. “I got there, and I never left.”
As the Peer Specialist, he has a unique rapport with the students because he’s been there, just like them.
The two answered questions about Turning Leaf’s planned expansion before the meeting closed with a round of heavy applause and numerous thanks.
It was an honor for Turning Leaf to be invited to speak at the Columbia Rotary Club. We are all always thrilled for the opportunity to talk about our incredible students and the story behind the work we do.
Click this link to watch Amy Barch and Aulzue “Blue” Fields at the Columbia Rotary Club.
As these words are being written, criminal justice reform is a hot topic. Inhumanely long sentences are being re-examined; solitary confinement is being halted. And we at Turning Leaf are delighted to know that April is National Second Chance Month.
Our men are all offered a new direction when they come here. A new chance to change their lives. That’s what we value here, and that’s what we believe in.
So, too, does President Joe Biden. In a recent proclamation, he wrote, “During Second Chance Month, we lift up all those who, having made mistakes, are committed to rejoining society and making meaningful contributions.”
Janarius is an example of someone who can and should be lifted up. As a teenager, he got caught up in the streets. Mistakes were made; opportunities were wasted. But now at 25, Janarius has a whole life ahead of him with a priceless opportunity to build a lasting relationship with his son.
He won’t waste his second chance.
This is Janarius’ story.
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Janarius is the third of nine children – eight boys and one girl and including two sets of twins (Janarius is one of the four twins). A chubby baby, his mama called him Fatty, a nickname that sticks with him to this day. He likes it, though. “It’s an oxymoron,” he says. “Fatty Smalls. It’s like Biggie Smalls.”
“Besides,” he adds. “It’s a name my mama gave me. I’d rather be called that than my real name.”
When he was young he had a bad stutter, which kept him quiet in school. “If the teacher asked someone to read out loud, I didn’t to do it,” he says. He was a good student anyway, bright and willing (for the most part) to do the work that came easily to him. At home, he and three of his closest brothers were called “the bad four,” but it wasn’t without affection. They were the wild ones, fighting in the house, running around, playing hard. They were full of energy and loved to be outside.
His biological father wasn’t in the picture at all. Most of the work and financial burden of raising nine children fell on his mother, and he respects everything she did. “She never forced our fathers to be in our lives,” he says. “She never asked for child support, and she always told us, ‘If he doesn’t want to be in your life, I don’t want to force it, and I don’t want you chasing him.’” His stepfather was there, and that was enough.
Childhood wasn’t without its difficulties, however. They moved a lot, from one project to another, and Janarius and his brothers changed schools a lot, too. The neighborhoods were rough. “The strong survive,” he says. When he was in sixth grade, his little cousin was run over by a drunken uncle right in front of his house, a traumatic experience for everyone.
The streets beckoned, too, and by seventh grade, Janarius was ready to answer their call. “I had to separate my lives,” he says. “In school I was a star student, but then I was also running the streets hard. I was running out late, hanging out with older kids.”
“I was a violent kid,” he adds. “My friends and I would go around the neighborhood and beat up crackheads.” That’s what the older kids did, you see. And for Janarius – the shy kid with the stutter he’d worked hard to suppress – the violence was an opportunity to find acceptance.
Football almost saved him. His oldest brother was four years older than him and a star player at North Charleston High School. Janarius wanted to be like his brother, and started working hard to be the best football player he could be. He was a running back, a safety, and a linebacker. A coach and pastor became his mentor. “He told me, ‘You don’t need to be doing this street stuff. You got talent,’” says Janarius. The encouragement kept him going during the school year. Janarius played football and baseball. He ran track. He did all the right things, and by the end of his ninth-grade year he was ninth in his class at North Charleston High School.
“But there was something about the streets that kept calling me back,” he says. “I was trying to be accepted and prove myself. It made me run the streets harder than who I really was.”
In middle school he and his friends had built a rap group called the Young Goons. They had a following, which grew as they all went to different high schools and spread out, finding new fans. But a rival group called the Young Gunners started, and the two groups fought at school and at parties. They wreaked havoc wherever they went, until local police started a task force to stop the two unofficial gangs from getting worse.
Summers were the worst for Janarius. Without the structure of school and sports, he ran the streets full time. He didn’t want to ask his mama for money, since she was working hard to support all nine kids, so he sold marijuana each summer to fund purchases for school.
It was in the summer before his twelfth grade that things fell apart. Janarius had just turned 18 – he started school late due to a November birthday, and he repeated sixth grade – and had spent a day playing video games and talking to his girlfriend. He left the house to run to the store and stopped to hang out with friends at an apartment complex where none of them lived. It was one of those nights that starts kind of quiet but escalates. Police showed up and told them to hit the road or they’d be picked up for trespassing; they left, but came right back, happy with their spot. When the police returned, the kids all hid on balconies and porches, then decided to move on. It was one guy’s birthday. They wanted to smoke weed to celebrate, but nobody had any money.
The guys decided to rob a cab driver to get the cash for weed. “I was the last man there,” says Janarius. “They tried to tell me they had it. They told me to sit this one out. But I bullied my way in.”
One of the guys had a gun. They robbed the cabbie and spent the night in an abandoned house, thinking they’d gotten away with it. Only problem was: Janarius left a handprint on the car. He was picked up by the police at his brother’s house the next day. Of the crew, he was only one who went to jail, eventually pleading out with ten years for attempted armed robbery.
“At first I was angry,” he says. But then he realized this was a wake-up call. “I started hanging out with older guys, and I got in the auto-body shop.” Janarius got certified in auto work and felt things start to change. “I calmed down a lot. I was less aggressive, and I didn’t think about robbing and fighting anymore. I thought about making a family and trying to make everything right.”
Change is difficult, though. Some of his friends still run streets, and when he got out of prison after six years (two in county, four in state), he felt their pull again. It was still the easiest way of making money.
But in his first week home he had a conversation that changed everything. “I talked to an ex-girlfriend and she told me I might have a son,” he says. “I took a DNA test and found out I had a child. I came home to a seven-year-old son.”
“I can’t do this anymore,” he told himself. “I have a child now, and I already missed seven years of his life.”
Turning Leaf had sent Janarius a letter as he was getting ready to get out of prison; he found it and called. The road ahead would still be bumpy, though, with a couple of false starts here at Turning Leaf.
Janarius is back for his third attempt at our program. It’s different this time. Back at Christmas, he didn’t have any money to buy his son gifts. “I don’t want to be like my father and be a failure,” he says. “This time, I’m still here fighting, and I’m getting a lot out of it.”
Nowadays, when Janarius isn’t at work, he’s probably at home, playing video games with his son instead of hanging out with friends on the streets. “If I’m out with the guys,” he says, “I know at the end of the day I’ll wind up back in the same loop.”
He’s using the skills he learns here, and especially credits Turning Leaf with helping him learn to speak up in front of people. He’s working hard to get to Level 3 and then full-time in the Print Shop.
Janarius has goals for the next few years. “Next year I want to surprise my son with some toys and make him be happy,” he says. Beyond that, he hopes to find a good job and have a family in the future. He’s only 25 years old, after all. He’s got a whole lifetime to live up to his second chance.
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We’re with you all the way, Janarius! You’ll make the most of this second chance, and we’ll always be there to help. We believe in you!
Turning Leaf probably shouldn’t have happened. It was too hard. There were too many barriers. No funding. Not enough support. But it did happen.
Amy Barch is the founder and director of Turning Leaf. With grit and second chances, she’s proud to lead the best reentry organization in the world.