Drew

Drew is one of our youngest students. At only 23 years old, he’s seen more of life’s ups and downs than many people more than twice his age. In fact, he’s seen enough to know there has to be a better way. He’s at Turning Leaf to find it.

This is Drew’s story.

Growing up in the projects of Miami wasn’t exactly idyllic, but it didn’t start out too badly. “I had candy,” says Drew. “I could ride bikes with the other kids. We’d stay out till the sunlight was gone.” His mom was strong and present, but when Drew was five years old his father was caught up on a federal charge and wound up serving ten years. His role models shifted to his older brothers who were already experiencing the darker side of Miami.

“I grew up in a family with a lot of ‘known’ people,” says Drew. From a young age, he already knew there were rules to the streets. There were certain areas he could go to, and others he couldn’t. As he grew up, proving himself to the older boys was crucial. “It was a lot of showing out,” he says. “Once I got older, they could see I could do all this stuff without issue. It was stuff they wished they could do, but they were scared to do it themselves.” Maybe there was another way to be, but he couldn’t see it at the time. “I had to make a name for myself.”

As Drew hit his late teens, he still wasn’t 100% committed to the street life. He was still trying to go to school, playing ball, but his street friends were what mattered to him. As he says, he was living “one foot in, one foot out.” There were crimes – burglaries, mostly petty – that garnered slap-on-the-wrist punishments and brief stints in juvie. He thought it would go on like that forever.

Then came a bloody day in 2016. Drew was out on bond for a strong-arm robbery case in which he and some of his friends mugged a classmate whose mother happened to be a police lieutenant. That slap on the wrist was definitely going to sting more.

Still, it was just a normal day. Drew and his boys were in the streets, sitting on the tank (their name for their building’s electrical unit), doing their thing. They had a pistol but weren’t actively looking for trouble. Suddenly, bullets began flying. A few guys from a different group ambushed them and began shooting from the bushes. “They killed my homie in front of me,” he says. “I can replay the scene like yesterday, with bullets flying by you. I know the last words my dog said. I know what he sounded like. I know what he did to himself.”

Not only did that traumatic event lead to more jail time for Drew, whose involvement exacerbated the prior charge and led to new ones, but it also led to a change in mindset. “I used to have a f*cked up mindset,” he says, “like, this person’s gotta die. But once I saw it with my own eyes, like when it happens to your loved ones or your friends…that sh*t ain’t no pretty sight.”

Mostly, too, he wanted to be better for his mom. “She’s my rock,” he says. He’d tried to take care of her through his crimes prior to being locked up, giving his mom $300, $500 every week or so to help support her and his younger siblings. But he feels like he didn’t do enough. “I had thirteen thousand, fifteen thousand dollars in a shoebox sometimes,” he says. “I blew threw it a couple times. I’d empty it out, fill it up, but I never gave her [his mom] any real money.”

And yet, when he needed money for bond and a lawyer, she didn’t think twice. “The lawyer wanted seven or ten thousand,” says Drew. “She did it without a sweat.” That she did it by emptying out her 401(k) retirement fund is a thing Drew regrets. His mom worked hard for that money, and she spent it trying to keep him out of jail.

It didn’t work, or at least not exactly. Drew spent about 13 months in prison after his friend’s death, and who was there to pick him up when he was released? His mom.

After she moved to South Carolina to be closer to her parents, Drew stuck it out in Florida for another year, moving to Fort Lauderdale to be with his older brothers. There, while trying to live a better way, he says, it was hard with his brothers still involved on the streets. “I’m trying to run from it, but I keep winding up in it.”

So he moved to South Carolina be with his mother. It wasn’t a smooth transition. He smoked a lot of weed before the move, relying on a special drink to flush his system before required drug tests, and although he gave it up for nine months after his move, soon he found himself smoking again. “I started smoking again, just to be in a relaxed place.” He knew he had to stop.

When he heard about Turning Leaf, things began to change.

Today, Drew is in week 10 of the program. He is almost finished, and I have been able to watch him open up and begin to believe he can have a better life. He believes the skills taught at Turning Leaf make his life better. “I’ve learned to be myself,” he says. “Growing up, I had to prove too much. Here, you don’t have to be the toughest.”

He believes in the hard work Turning Leaf asks of him. “Think of Steph Curry. He shoots 3-pointers all day, but he’s still in the gym, working hard.”

Drew looks up to the older guys in the program and been motivated to not spend decades in prison before making a change. He shared this story of how the skills have transformed him into a different man.

He was playing basketball one night with another student, and someone at the court was pacing back and forth, looking like he wanted to jack Drew’s phone. Drew grew heated. His old belief of “get him before he gets me” kicked in, but the other student reminded Drew to think about how a confrontation would play out. Drew paused, put his hands to his head, took a deep breath, and walked away. It wasn’t worth it to throw away everything he’s been working on just to prove a point. He has too much to lose. “I am the man that can get upset and still walk away and that feels good!”

He wants to make his mom proud, but he wants to do it in the right way: the way that keeps him out of prison. The way in which he doesn’t end up being killed like his friend. The way that gets him closer to reaching his goals of having a career making good money and living a good life.

Drew, you’re on your way man! You have an entire team behind you! You have what it takes to succeed.

Story Captured by Leah Rhyne

Winard

Winard has been a student at Turning Leaf for almost four months. He’s nearing graduation and I didn’t want his story to slip past me. After all these years, sometimes I have a sixth sense about the men I work for. Sometimes I feel that there’s a story to be told. I asked and he agreed without hesitation. Like every time I ask a student for their story, I explained that I would share it on social media and in our newsletter. “Are you good with that?” I asked. All good, he said.

I came into it cold. Before the interview, I didn’t know much about Winard other than reports from my staff and our brief interactions in the hallway and our print shop. I was blown away. The men at Turning Leaf are so resilient, and Winard is no exception. Had I faced the challenges he faced, I probably would have folded my hand years ago. But Winard and all the guys here continue to plug away, getting back up and putting the work in.

It was an honor to spend an hour getting to know Winard to document his story, and it’s my honor to share with you. I’m so glad I didn’t let this one pass me by.

Winard has a twin brother. It was his loyalty to that relationship which ultimately led him to prison. But, of course, it’s more complicated than just a brother’s loyalty. It’s also about circumstances: poverty, addiction, family, and abuse.

Most of my students’ childhoods are bad, but Winard’s is something most of can’t imagine, let alone relate to. He and his twin, along with his older brother and younger sister, grew up with their mom and dad in a trailer on John’s Island. They had neither power nor running water for five years. Winard’s dad was an abusive alcoholic, addicted to drugs and to gambling.

For food, the kids had whatever they could catch in the nearby creek – shrimp, crabs and fish. He remembers going to school and not understanding other family dynamics. Kids talked about fun things they did with their parents over weekends, vacations they were taking and things they were buying. Without a radio or TV, Winard had almost no access with the outside world. It took him longer than you would think to understand that his family situation wasn’t normal. He was teased and bullied in school. People knew what his life was like. Shame and embarrassment haunted him.

His older brother left their home at age 12. He called their grandmother and told her, “If you don’t come and get me right now, I’m going to disappear and you’ll never see me again.” She got him. Three years later, Winard, his twin, and his sister did the same thing. They left the trailer, went to a friend’s house and called the police. Winard and his siblings joined their brother to live with their grandmother.

Despite his circumstances, Winard didn’t get into trouble as a child or a teen. He wasn’t rebellious. He wanted to buy things and understood that working was the path to what he wanted. He and his twin brother worked at Burger King for five years. Bu then, when Winard was 21, their grandmother died. Everything changed.

Winard and his siblings went to live with his mother, who was by then living in North Charleston. “It was the major turning point my life,” Winard said, “If I had stayed in the country, I don’t think I’d ever have gone to prison.” His new neighborhood wasn’t great. People loitered on street corners where open-air drug dealing happened. Most people in his new circles lived a criminal lifestyle. Men made money quickly and had women, cars, and the respect of their peers.

The distance to Burger King made keeping that job impossible. Winard quit. For a while he tried to stay out of the streets: he worked various jobs, but keeping them became a hassle. People around him made quick money on their own schedules without a boss telling them what to do. The lure of the criminal lifestyle was strong. Winard’s twin brother already had already jumped in, but Winard still only dabbled on the fringes.

One day his brother dropped by his house. The police had been following him, suspecting him of selling drugs, and they came into Winard’s apartment looking for him. They found drugs on his brother, and both men were arrested. At his brother’s request Winard agreed to tell the police the drugs were his, in order to save his brother from getting in trouble. At 24, Winard had a criminal record.

Afterwards, he started having problems finding work. A criminal record will do that to a guy. When he did find a job, it was for less money than before. He went to prison for chronically driving on a suspended license. When he came out, he had an even harder time finding a job, for even less money. It was a downward cycle. He gave up the job search and sold drugs full-time.

But Winard’s full-time drug dealing wasn’t anywhere close to his brother’s level of criminal involvement, which included burglarizing houses, cars, and hoarding stashes of cash. He asked Winard to live in one of his houses to keep an eye on it, since he didn’t spend much time there. His brother also bought him a brand-new car. Six weeks after Winard moved in, his brother was arrested for a string of robberies. Winard was implicated, and eventually arrested.

The federal government offered Winard a deal. They weren’t really interested in him: he didn’t have an extensive criminal record, and they knew he wasn’t involved in the robberies. They just wanted details of his brother’s activity. They told Winard, “Your brother says you sold drugs for him. You knew about the cash in the house. You knew he bought you a car with illegal money. We can arrest you for that.”

But Winard was certain his brother wouldn’t rat him out. He denied knowing anything about his brother’s illegal activity, and for three years he sat in county jail, awaiting trial. He was facing 25 years.

On the day of his trial, he still didn’t believe his brother would testify against him, but his brother did it to save himself. He was facing 70 years in prison. His testimony against Winard meant that he only got 25 years. Others implicated in the crimes also testified against him to save themselves. Winard was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison.

If Winard had come clean about his brother’s illegal activity and not gone to trial, his brother wouldn’t have had the opportunity for a reduced sentence. Winard’s loyalty saved his brother from life in prison.

I asked him if he would have done it differently. If he could go back, would he have told the truth to save himself 10 years in prison, but at the cost of his brother’s life? “Yes,” he said, “100%.”

Winard was released from prison in November of 2019. He knew he wanted a new life for himself, but after ten years in prison he didn’t know who to ask for help or where to get a job. A few days after his release he went into a barber shop and saw a flyer on the wall for Turning Leaf. He decided to give the program a shot and never looked back.

What are his plans now? His time at Turning Leaf is ending. His goals are to find a good job and make up for as much lost time as possible. He has two daughters. Re-establishing those relationships are his priority now. He’s taking life one day at a time and using the skills he learned at Turning Leaf to make good decisions and be the man he always wanted to be.

Story Captured by Leah Rhyne

Elton

Through the past weeks here on the Turning Leaf page, we’ve talked to a number of our current students. We’ve learned what causes young men to take the path toward crime, and we’ve talked about the many tragedies encountered in the lifestyle.

But what does life look like for a Turning Leaf graduate? How does it feel when you realize the straight and narrow path is still full of dangerous temptations and daily decisions that can change your life? How to do the skills learned over 10 weeks at Turning Leaf prepare you to value hard work over easy money, and to stand down from confrontations in order to move forward?

This is Elton’s story.

Elton grew up in a regular house, with a regular mom and dad, and regular things like video games. His parents took care of Elton and his brother and sister. Things were good.

But when he was a teenager, the crime lifestyle was too good to resist. It was too easy. “I got caught up in the lifestyle…the glamour of the lifestyle,” he says. Drugs, guns, robberies. By 15 years old he was spending two years in juvie for a neighborhood robbery, and by the time he came out, he says, “it was like I graduated. I had arrived.”

From there, Elton got heavily into it. He did cocaine. Dealt cocaine. Hustled 24 hours a day, seven days a week, making money to support himself and a growing number of children he fathered by different women.

The glory, the recognition, were what kept him there. “They see me,” he says, “and they know: ‘He got money. He smooth with the ladies. He got a nice car.’” He lived for the rush, the thrill of the deal, the adrenaline of it all. “It’s addictive. Once you get a hit of it – the recognition and all that – it’s crazy and it’s for real.”

Life became a revolving door of the streets and jail. He’d do a year in county, another in state, so on and so forth, year after year after year. “The lifestyle was wearing on me,” he says. He was getting older, and started to feel like it had to end sometime. “You go in, doing a year, and you come home with a mindset to get out [of the criminal lifestyle], but as soon as I’m out, somebody’s always waiting for me with a package.” And the cycle would begin again.

By the time Elton hit 34, his kids were getting old enough to tell him what they thought of his life. “They were able to articulate how they felt with me not being there all the time, and it really started sinking in,” he says. So in 2014, when he caught five years federal time on charges for trafficking cocaine and possession of firearms, he knew he was done. “When those cuffs hit my wrist,” he says, “I knew it was time to change. I started on that journey to transform myself.”

It wasn’t easy, though. In prison, he had a reputation to keep, even while trying to walk the straight and narrow path. He’s a big guy, the kind other guys like to test. For as much as he tried to work on his transformation, he says, “you still need that rep in prison to get through smoothly. It was hell, man.”

Luckily, Elton did what he had to do, and he had a solution waiting for him on the outside. Some of our students come upon us by chance; Elton knew he was coming to Turning Leaf before he went up to prison. “I knew I needed resources and accountability to take it to the next level, and to really conquer my demons. The judge recommended Turning Leaf to me, and he put it in my order that when I got out I had to enroll in the program.”

Elton came home to his halfway house on a Monday. He called Blue at Turning Leaf on Wednesday, had an interview on Friday, and started the program the following Monday. One week was all it took to enroll in the program that would help him turn his life around.

In the program, he learned skills he uses to keep himself on the road to success. Stop and Think is a big one. “I use that daily,” he says. “You have to think about what you say or what you do because you never know what’s going to happen or who’s listening.”

Just because he’s out of the lifestyle doesn’t mean the opportunities to rejoin it aren’t still there. Elton can tell stories like this with a laugh now, thanks to stopping and thinking at the time. “A guy texts my phone the other day and says, ‘I got the girl.’ I say, ‘Who is this?’ And he says, ‘The Boss.’ The Boss? The girl he means is cocaine. It was the wrong number.” A few years ago, though, it might not have been a wrong number. But he stopped. He thought.

It also helps him to remember to ask for help. His family supports him now, as does the family at Turning Leaf. When he needs them, they’re there, even after his graduation. At first, he says, “Turning Leaf made my transition smooth. I came in every day. It nurtured what I already had growing in me.”

His experiences there weren’t always easy, though he’s grateful for it all. “Joe’s a good guy,” he says. “He dug in and found some things with me that I really needed to deal with. He really dug around in that basement. It was a blessing. You gotta respect the Leaf.”

Today, Elton considers his life “vanilla.” He works in construction, building bridges, and is working on getting his CDL. He spends a lot of time with his family, particularly his children, and loves it. “I get invitations now to family functions,” he says. “I didn’t used to get that

because I wasn’t really part of the family. It feels good.” He has five kids, aged five through 17. He plays video games with his sons and picks his daughters up from school just to hang out. Working 40 hours a week instead of hustling 24/7 means he has the time to build relationships with them in a way he never could before.

Sometimes the drudgery of a normal job can be frustrating, but he can see the bigger picture. He wants to finish his CDL and maybe start his own business so he can call the shots. He knows it won’t be easy, but he’s ready. “You gotta put in the work,” he says. “In both lifestyles.”

He knows every day he’ll be faced with challenges. “When you get in the job site habits,” he says, “the talking and the jabbing and the jiving, you kind of lose yourself a little. But you have to be cognizant and aware of yourself. You have to stop and think. I’m not about to lose everything I worked for over this guy.”

Elton isn’t concerned about his tough guy image anymore.. When he talks about the past, sometimes, he sounds a little like a preacher. “We’re blinded,” he says. “With shackles over our eyes. When that thing falls off, we see a lot. It’s like I’ve been in a trance, but now I’ve still got time to salvage my life…I mean, I’ve been through it. I’ve been shot, I’ve been robbed. Dealing this stuff now? It’s easy.”

He stops, thinks, and then laughs. “You know what I think? I’m too fly to be a jailbird.”

That about sums it up, doesn’t it? Too fly to be a jailbird. You talked about starting out in the basement, Elton, and we can’t wait to see how high you go. There’s no ceiling; there’s only wide open sky.

Story Captured by Leah Rhyne

Cornelius

What’s in a name? Shakespeare wrote about the importance of names in Romeo and Juliet, a tragic story in which names kept two young lovers from ever being together. But can a name have such importance in contemporary society?

It can, when it’s a name a beloved grandfather proudly passed down to one of his favorite grandchildren. It can, when that grandchild didn’t honor the name, choosing the easy route of the drug trade over honest, hard work. It can, when that grandchild is now determined to bring pride back to the name, turning his life around to finally be the father his daughters deserve.

As a child, Cornelius was proud to take on his grandfather’s nickname, DP. He knows he squandered it, though. However, after 10 years in federal prison, he’s working hard in the Turning Leaf program to bring honor to that nickname, and his grandfather, once again. This is his story.

Cornelius was raised by a family who loved him. His grandfather was a well-known local farmer who taught him the value of hard work. Known around the neighborhood as DP, his grandfather brought Cornelius under his wing, and Cornelius helped him around the farm. “He used to feed the neighborhood,” says Cornelius, pride in his voice. “He’d plant so much, then he’d go around. If you didn’t have it, he’s gonna give it to you.” The two were together so much that people started calling Cornelius DP, too, something he loved to hear.

Between DP and Cornelius’s grandmother and mother, a diabetic who took care of her parents, Cornelius grew up with structure, a roof over his head and clothes on his back. But that’s not always enough for a growing boy in a troubled neighborhood. “There were lots of bad activities in my neighborhood,” he says. “It was drug-infested.”

After his father took off when Cornelius was 13, he “got caught up in the wrong thing.” He started smoking weed at 14, staying out later. “I tried my hand at dealing, things started coming in easy, and I just didn’t stop.”

His grandfather was appalled, but DP was getting older and couldn’t give Cornelius the attention he’d lavished on him in the past. “My grandfather used to get on me a lot,” he says. “He loved when I took on his nickname, but then when I was on the street, he didn’t want me ruining his name.”

That motivation alone wasn’t enough to stop Cornelius from walking the path of drug dealing. It was just too easy to make money that way. He’d get in trouble on state charges – the first came for driving without a license when he was only 16, followed by DUIs and multiple drug charges, but he had the money to pay his lawyers to get him out and keep him out of jail.

His first serious charge came when he was 18. He was riding in a car with two of his friends. They had alcohol and drugs on them, and when police pulled them over, one of the boys ran. He dropped his stash, but the cops found it. Street code meant none of the boys ratted each other out, so all three got locked up, which started a domino effect that kept Cornelius hurtling toward federal prison.

It started with county prison first though, where he was kept in isolation. “You’re tossing and turning in there,” he says. “It feels like the walls are closing in on you. You’ve just got a hard bunk and you think you’re gonna change, you’re not gonna do it again. But the moment you walk out of the county jail, you’re back full-fledged in it.” (“It,” in this case, is the drug dealing lifestyle. Again. Still.)

Things went downhill for Cornelius from there. He and his brother were caught in set-up sales, in which someone wears a wire and asks for drugs. If you sell to them, you’re caught on video and audio, and you’re in trouble. Police found weed, other drugs, and guns in their house and he was arrested again. He got out on bond, but from there he caught charge after charge. Each was state, though, and he was able to buy his way out.

His brother got out of the business, then, and through it all Cornelius had kept their two youngest brothers out of the business, too. He made sure they went to school and stayed out of trouble. He’s proud of them – they’re both grown up and married and work hard to take care of their families.

That wasn’t Cornelius’s path, though. One night, three short months after his beloved grandfather’s death, Cornelius was home, putting his baby daughter to sleep. His girlfriend begged him to stay home, but after the baby was asleep, he went out for a run (a drug drop-off), and police were watching one of the guys he met. There was a high-speed chase, and the police caught Cornelius. He was already on probation and had loads of drugs in his car. This charge went federal.

The judge gave him 23 years in federal prison.

In court, his mom was crying. His whole family was hurt. He finally knew he had to change. He had to earn back the nickname of his grandfather and make his family proud again.

Cornelius was sent to prison in California, which was tough but also a blessing in disguise. Prison in California is different: it’s got a lot of politics, gangs, and it’s very strict. You have to walk a certain way, acknowledge the various cultures within its walls. “Going to California,” he says, “guys got knives bigger than you. It made me take the time to analyze myself, to study, and to take the trade classes.” Cornelius came away with a certification in painting from Sherwin Williams, a useful trade skill that can help him on the outside.

After 5 years on the west coast, during which he never had any visitors, he was transferred back east to a North Carolina facility. There, he was finally able to reunite with his family, including his daughters. The littlest had been a baby when he was arrested. “My baby girl was spooked when she first saw me,” he says. “But when I called her, she ran to me, and that was the best feeling in my life. She felt safe.”

He served 10 years of his sentence, reduced thanks to Barack Obama’s sentence reform legislation. The day he got out was amazing: he got to wear regular clothes instead of handcuffs! In the halfway house, he heard about Turning Leaf’s program, and how amazing it is. He was happy to get in.

“Here,” he says, “you can learn skills that mean a lot in life. If you can’t conduct yourself in the right way, getting a job won’t mean anything.”

At Turning Leaf, Cornelius is working hard to manage his frustrations, set boundaries for himself, and to stay calm in tough situations. It’s helping. He’s learned not to force himself on his daughters; he was absent much of their lives, and if he wants to have a good relationship with them now, he has to be patient and to show them he’s a different person than the man who went to prison. “I love them,” he says. “I’m working hard to be the daddy they need me to be. I want to have a good job and a house so I can see them running around in the yard. I’m trying every day to be a better person. It’s hard, but if I can do it, anybody can do it.”

And as for his grandfather, DP, if he could say one thing, it would be, “I’m working hard to be a better man so I can continue his legacy and make sure everything he left behind is taken care of.” He’s earning back that nickname one day at a time.

We are so proud of you, Cornelius! We see you working, and we know you’re going to be great!

Story Captured by Leah Rhyne