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.
* * * *
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.
* * * *
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!
Van was the kid in his neighborhood who was supposed to get out. The smart one. The one everyone rallied around and protected. But somehow, still, at 17 he made a mistake, which led to another, and another, until he wound up deep in the exact life he was supposed to avoid: the life of a drug dealer and addict.
Today he’s using those experiences to help others find a new path the same way he did: through hard work, introspection, and a willingness to change.
This is Van’s story.
* * * *
Van is acutely aware of the stories of the students in his class with Turning Leaf. “I didn’t have it anywhere near as bad as some of the rest of the guys,” he says.
But really, who’s the judge of that? Like so many of our students, Van’s childhood was marked by trauma and violence. His maternal grandparents were killed by his mother’s ex-boyfriend before he was born. He lived with his mother and great-grandmother. His father wasn’t really in the picture. A recovering drug addict who relapsed, he committed suicide when Van was 17 years old. They weren’t close, but considering 17 was the age at which things started to fall apart for Van, it’s safe to say his father’s death had a dramatic impact.
As a child, his neighborhood was filled with drugs, dealers, and the violence inherent in that world. Van was protected, though, and not only because everybody knew he was a bright kid destined for bigger things. “The whole neighborhood knew my mom,” he says, laughing. As in: they were afraid of her, afraid of what she’d do to them if they let anything happen to her boy. It was a good kind of fear.
In high school Van wrestled and had scholarships waiting for him when he graduated. He started smoking marijuana, though, and a drug bust at 17 landed him in hot water. He was expelled, his scholarships rescinded. The high school administrators encouraged him to take a year off, take some classes at Trident Tech, and then come back the next school year to finish school. Van had other plans.
He started selling drugs. “I thought, ‘I like to smoke weed, so why not sell it?’” he says. His habit and his sales stayed recreational for a few years, “but then I started having kids.”
After the birth of his first daughter, a friend said, “You know a lot of people, why don’t you get rid of this for me,” and handed him a bunch of cocaine. He sold it, bought more, and sold more. Money came fast, and so did more kids.
In his early twenties Van got arrested, sat in county for a while, and realized he should get out of the lifestyle. He worked a straight job for a few years, but when he and his children’s mother broke up, “child support started catching up with me.” He went back to what he knew, this time selling harder drugs like meth and heroin. He started using harder stuff, too. The lifestyle was exciting: women, drugs, and partying. A friend taught him how to print counterfeit money, so he added that to his repertoire.
Life was spiraling out of control, but Van couldn’t see it. Not yet. He was getting arrested for minor charges like possession, driving on a suspended license, and assaults and batteries for bar fights. “I had some anger management problems,” he says. But as the charges piled up, “it was nothing that made me say I’ve got to stop and slow down.”
That started to change after he caught his first felony charge, possession with intent to distribute cocaine, meth, and heroin. He was able to bond out, and friends told him to slow down. In Van’s mind, though, he’d just spent a bunch of money and had to make it up. “I probably should have stayed in jail and sat,” he says now.
A couple months later, he was arrested again, this time for trafficking, a far more serious crime. It landed him a $250,000 bond that kept him in jail, but not out of trouble. While he awaited trial, he met a guy who showed him how to counterfeit better. “When I get out of jail, I’m gonna do this,” he thought. “It’ll be great.” He had big “street dreams,” and when the charge resulted in ten years’ suspended sentence with five years’ probation, he thought he was sitting pretty.
His plan was to make enough money to get himself back on his feet, but when he got out he found his family in disarray. Three of his kids were staying in hotel rooms with their mom. “I felt like they needed me,” he says. “I felt like I had to do what I had to do.”
Things moved quickly from there. The counterfeit built up his bank account, and he started selling a lot more drugs. “I started using a lot more than I did before, too,” he says. “I’m making all this money but I’m also getting high all the time.” His relationship with his children’s mother deteriorated. He started talking to another girl, and she asked him to help her and a friend improve their counterfeit skills. He did, not knowing the Secret Service was watching her friend, capturing pictures of them and Van in his hotel room.
The street life started closing in. He ran into a high school friend right after using fake money in her store. She called the police, and when she warned him on Facebook messenger, he blocked her.
A couple of days before Christmas in 2018, Van was running out to pick up a new iPhone for his daughter when a friend called, wanting meth. It was late and Van didn’t want to bother with the deal, but the money was too good to turn down. This time he had a friend drive so he couldn’t catch another charge for driving on a suspended license.
When cops pulled up behind them, the friend sped up, allowing Van to throw his drugs out the window. But they were caught, as you usually are. Van admitted to everything, taking the full charge to keep his friend out of jail. He went to Berkeley County jail.
A few days later the Secret Service showed up to talk to him. Soon it was all over the local papers: Van was part of an accused counterfeit ring. He was indicted on federal conspiracy charges.
Together, the charges and plea deals added up to Van serving approximately 30 months total in various jails and prisons. “My daughter was crushed,” Van says. “That’s the part that hurt me the most.”
Today, he admits that going to prison was the best thing that ever happened to him. While inside, he started going to a DAODAS program, which provides services to addicts. He attended AA meetings. “At first I only went there for the microwave,” he says. “But then, after a couple of months, I started listening to the stories being told around me, and it hit me: you know what? I’m a drug addict!”
At the time of our interview, Van has celebrated 11 months of sobriety, starting in prison and continuing after. He’s living in an Oxford House, a sober-living facility, and thriving there. He attends AA and NA meetings three times per week, or more if he feels like he needs it.
He found out about Turning Leaf right before his release and never had any doubts about applying. Between Turning Leaf, AA, and the books our case manager, Justin, gives him to read, he’s learning a ton, realizing how much of his own personality he hid throughout the years to seem “hard.”
“I like being around the other guys at Turning Leaf,” he says. “I see where I was, and I’m surrounded by people who want to change. I want to change. My situation could have been a lot worse than it was. I know that. It makes me appreciate my second chance even more.”
“We don’t have to be a product of our environment. We can be more than that. It sounds like common sense, but a lot of us aren’t taught that as kids. Life is 20% of what happens to you, and 80% how you react to it. I live by that now.”
* * * *
Van starts college next month, working toward a degree in counseling. He’s hoping to find a car soon so he can stop feeling like a burden to his children’s mothers. His is a big, blended family, and he cherishes every minute he spends with the kids, their mothers, and his newfound friends at the Oxford House and Turning Leaf.
Congratulations on how far you’ve come already, Van. We’re all watching to see how far you’ll go. We know it’ll be incredible.
It’s funny how a single decision can change the trajectory of a person’s life. Sometimes it’s not even your own life. Those of us with children or who work with children know we can say or do things – sometimes without thinking about it – that affect a child in monumental ways.
In Terrell’s case, it was a basketball coach who cut him from the team in 10th grade who completely changed his life, and not for the better. But after weeks at Turning Leaf, Terrell would be the first to tell you: it’s not the coach’s fault he’s spent a total of 12 years in prison. No, that’s on Terrell.
But he also knows: he has the power to change his own life, for the better this time, using the skills and work ethic learned daily, in class and on the Print Shop floor at Turning Leaf.
This is Terrell’s story.
* * * *
Terrell grew up in Columbia, South Carolina, and it was always a little rough. The streets always called. When he was only five, his father was pulled over by the police with little Terrell in the car. The cops found drugs, and Terrell’s father didn’t want DSS called for his boy. He wanted to get the child to his grandmother’s house.
Terrell’s father made a choice that day. “He fought the police,” says Terrell. “He beat them up, took me to my grandma’s house, and then waited for the police to come. He got 15 years for that.”
His father stayed in the picture, even from jail. “He raised me through the phone,” he says. “He told me to stay positive. He told me to play sports and supported me even though he was locked up.” Terrell went to see him every weekend.
It was mainly Terrell and his mom from that point on, though. Terrell was a good kid, involved in school and basketball. In fact, he was so good at basketball he played varsity ball in 9th grade, a power forward who could also play center. He had a scholarship waiting for him at Coastal Carolina University. College was on the horizon and things were really good.
The summer before his sophomore year of high school, Terrell spent a lot of time working. He’d cut grass, wash cars. “My mother instilled in me that I had to work at an early age.” She’d still buy him what he needed, but those things he wanted – the nice school clothes, movies with his friends on the weekends – he had to work for. So he did, all summer long. But Terrell’s schedule of odd jobs kept him away from summer basketball practices, and by the time he went back to school in August, the coach told him he was cut from the team.
“Basketball was my motivation for school,” he says. He dropped out, lost his scholarship, and things snowballed from there.
“I joined gangs then,” he says. “I was looking for unity. My dad and I fell out, too. He was trying to teach me to be a better person than him, but I was like, ‘How you gonna teach me something when you’re in jail?’” His mother told him he couldn’t live with her anymore, not if he wasn’t in school, so he went to the streets.
He started small, stealing rims off people’s cars (usually from the bigger dealers in the neighborhood). The older guys took notice of him. “They saw my hustle mentality,” he says. “I never asked anybody for money…I asked to wash their cars or cut their grass. I asked to do something to make money, so they saw I was ambitious.”
Those guys set Terrell up as a lookout, keeping an eye out for cops while they did their thing. Soon he was selling drugs, and then he started robbing people too. It’s an addition, like a drug. “I was addicted to the power of robbing,” he says. “I can see that now. If you hold a gun to somebody you can get whatever you want from them. But that’s not the right way.”
Terrell caught his first charge when he was 16 years old. Aggravated robbery and attempted murder. He and his friend needed money to buy cigarettes and weed early on a Sunday morning. They decided to rob a paperboy. Things went south when the paperboy didn’t want to be robbed. He wouldn’t hand over the money, and Terrell’s friend shot him. “The plan was for him to scare the paperboy with the gun and then I’d go in his pockets. But that didn’t happen.” While he didn’t shoot the gun and his homeboy took the majority of the rap, Terrell still received a 27-month sentence in a juvenile facility.
The Youthful Offender Act – YOA – meant that if he stayed out of trouble for two years following his release at 18, Terrell’s record would have been expunged. That didn’t happen though. He caught a gun charge, did another ten months, then after that a charge for armed robbery. That time he served three full years, with zero hope of clearing his record.
By the time he got out, Terrell was 21 with three major charges on his record. When the feds caught him a year later, nabbing him for distribution of crack-cocaine and felony possession of a firearm, they sent him away for six and a half years.
It was time for Terrell to re-think his ways, he realized. He says, “To me, prison was a place to rehabilitate yourself. You have to think about what you did wrong and how you can fix your mistake. Prison can make you worse if you don’t take the tools they give you and run with it.”
To Terrell, those tools include a routine of getting up early and getting to work, something he now uses in his daily life at the halfway house. “If you wake up at 5:30 in the morning,” he says, “and get busy working, you can have a job.”
Turning Leaf has enabled Terrell to take those tools and run with them, exactly how he wanted to. He was referred to us by another resident of the halfway house, and once he talked to Justin and Blue, he knew he wanted to take the program seriously.
“I see a change in myself already,” he says. “Turning Leaf is teaching me work ethic, how to be responsible. I can walk away from a situation now before it starts. The 25 skills they teach – you can use them in everyday life. You can even use all 25 in a single day if you need to.”
Terrell’s mother can see the change too. Through everything, she’s always stood by him. Always hoped. Always prayed. He says, “Right now she’s very proud, just as proud of me as she’s ever been. She can ride down the road at night and see the police and know it’s not me in the back of their car.”
The future looks bright for Terrell. He’s looking for a place to live when he gets out of the hallway house and hopes to stay in Charleston. One day he wants to own his own business.
“I’m a straight-up guy,” Terrell says. “I’m funny. I don’t want to be in the mess anymore.”
* * * *
We definitely value you for your sense of humor, Terrell, and your work ethic. We know you’re going to go so far in this world, and we’re so proud of you.
Prison time shapes the life of most of the men who come through Turning Leaf. For some, it is the cap to years spent in the street life; for others, those street years were brief and, rather than being shaped by the streets, it’s the prison itself that actually creates the man.
Deshawn went to prison when he was 19 years old. He stayed for nine years, got out, and was back in for another three. That’s twelve years in the prison system. His entire young adulthood.
This is a story of how prison – not the streets – can take a life and make it something none of us on the outside could ever recognize. It’s the story of how one man finally had enough of it and decided to do something about it.
This is Deshawn’s story.
* * * *
Deshawn never had to turn to the streets. His family was stable. The lifestyle wasn’t a part of their world. However, as a teenager, the neighborhood drew him in. “I wanted to be on my own,” he says. “I wanted to fit in with other people.”
His late teens were a wild ride. “I was reckless,” he says. “I had no cares in the world. I was out every night, using drugs, selling drugs, partying, messing with the women. It was fun at the time.”
The fun came to a screeching halt when he was 19. He was home in bed, sound asleep. His mother, brother and uncle were there, too, when police kicked the door in to get him. “I was asleep,” he say. “And then I was up with handcuffs on.” The experience was devastating to his mother, who cried the whole time.
The charges involved guns and crack, and Deshawn was sentenced to 147 months. He served 9 years. His girlfriend was pregnant when he went in; she severed contact with Deshawn, moving on with her life. She never called; she didn’t send pictures. Deshawn had to lock his son away in a part of his heart he couldn’t access if he wanted to get through his time.
Lots of things had to be locked away during those first nine years. He had a great support system – family and friends made sure if he needed something, he had it – but still. Prison is a different world. “Prison is what you make of it,” says Deshawn. “You have to make a schedule. I’d work out, go to school. I stayed to myself as much as I could. I minded my own business.”
During those years, holidays were the hardest time. He says, “I’d call, and everybody would be gathered together. Everybody but me.”
He preferred phone calls to physical visits from family and friends, though he could spend up to eight hours with visitors at a time. “But then when it was time to go,” he says, “there was a feeling. I can’t explain it. But they get to go and I have to stay.” Phone calls were easier. Not seeing a face, just hearing a voice.
Hearing about the world outside was also a challenge. “I’d know my world is what’s going on in here. I have to focus on that to survive.”
When the nine years were up and Deshawn was facing release, he had two thoughts: he wanted to meet his son, and he wanted back to the lifestyle. “I can do it better this time,” he thought. “It ain’t over for me yet.” He had a lot of time to make up for, a lot of money to make, and he only knew one way to do it.
On his first day out he saw his 9-year-old son for the first time. “It was a joyful feeling, but it also wasn’t,” he says. “He was born when I was in. We never bonded.” But he was determined to create a relationship where none existed, and so was his son’s mother. She brought the boy to see Deshawn every day for the first week he was home. Deshawn bought him a cell phone so they could continue to talk. That part was good.
But the streets beckoned, and Deshawn answered their call. “I needed money in my pocket, fancy cars, clothes, women,” he says. “I was 28 years old, but I’d missed out on my 20s. I still felt like a young’un.”
Three months later he was arrested and bonded out. Two months later it happened again. When four months later he was arrested again, there was no more bonding out. He was headed back to prison. And by that time, he was expecting two more children.
One of the babies was born the August before he went in; the other was born the following May. He now had three children and was facing another three years in prison.
His experience was different this time, thanks to the children. He already had a relationship with his oldest son, and the babies’ mothers wanted Deshawn in their children’s lives. They talked; sent pictures; visited. Deshawn finally realized the lifestyle he was living wasn’t sustainable. It wasn’t okay. “It wasn’t worth it,” he says. “I didn’t accomplish anything. I had fun, but I got nothing but a large prison sentence to show for it. I was making lots of money and blowing it all. I have nothing to show for any of it.”
When he got out of prison this time, he came straight to Turning Leaf. “It was rough at first,” he says. “But, like prison, it was what you make of it. It shows you the right way to go about things.”
Deshawn had never had a real job. He’d never received a regular paycheck. Suddenly he was getting a check every week and learning how to manage it. The change forced him to slow down, to pay attention to what he was doing.
“You can do whatever you put your mind to,” he says. “Anything is possible. I’m a better person for having been through Turning Leaf.” He learned to set boundaries, to stop and think before reacting to situations. Managing frustration was a skill he mastered and uses every day. He went through the full program, meeting every expectation set, and graduating with flying colors.
Today, Deshawn is a crew supervisor who leads by example. He works hard. He knows sometimes, when things get a little tough with his crew, he has to sit down, take a breather, and think about how to approach the situation.
He has his own apartment, his own car. He is proud of what goals he’s already accomplished and isn’t afraid to set more. He’s planning to buy a house soon.
And through all of this, he has his children. “I’m a family man now,” he says. “I’m home early every night. I play with my kids. They’re 14, four, and three years old now. I never imagined I’d be like this. I love them.”
“Even though I wasn’t there every day of their lives,” he says, “I want to make up for lost time. The little one says, ‘I want to be like you, Daddy,’ and I always say, ‘No, you have to be better than me.’”
The four-year-old recently told his mother that he wanted to go to work with his daddy because he wanted to make some money. He got all dirty, like his daddy always is after a long day of work. Imagine that; he wants a regular job, just to be like his daddy. Amazing.
* * * *
You’ve created a life to be proud of, Deshawn, and we at Turning Leaf are thrilled for you. Congratulations!
Domestic violence is a difficult topic. It batters people in so many ways. We mostly focus on the victims, rarely the perpetrators. Sometimes, though, it might do us good to shift our points of view. Particularly when the perpetrator in question is. Only eighteen years old at the time of the crime.
Should a single series of bad decisions made by a child cast a shadow over an entire life?
We at Turning Leaf don’t think so.
Meet Tyler, who was once a teenage boy who made a series of mistakes that had drastic repercussions. This is his story.
* * * *
“I was bad,” says Tyler with a laugh when speaking about his childhood. He’s now 22-years-old but sounds older when you listen to him. He sounds like someone who’s seen a lot. Probably because he has.
Bad, in Tyler’s case, mostly meant getting in fights at school. He always dealt with anger by using his fists. Part of it was that no one ever showed him any other way. “Everyone hid things from me,” he says. “No one told me how to feel or act in certain situations. I always had to go with it, and anger was my main go-to.”
“My mama already had her hands full with my brother. She had too much to handle. So she shipped me off to live with my grandma,” he says.
When things got to be too much for his grandma, he was shipped back off to his mama. Then back to his grandma. Tyler’s granddaddy was his only rock. His best role-model. “He was like my dad,” he says. “He’d be the one to tell me what to do. Calm me. He taught me things like how to cut grass and work on cars. That’s when I was actually happy.” His granddaddy died, though, when Tyler was only thirteen.
His actual dad was available but not present. He was always working. “Any time I needed him I could call him,” he says. “But he wasn’t physically around. Yeah, I can hear you, but I can’t physically walk up to you and be like, ‘Can you help me with this?’”
Life went on with Tyler ping-ponging between his mama and his grandma, changing schools and starting over far too often. “I was always good at making friends,” he says. “But I didn’t like starting over. And with the back and forth, I started of feel like nobody wanted me. They were always pushing me off on someone else.”
When Tyler reached high school, his dad came and brought the rebellious boy to live with him. His dad set a better example. “In him, I could see for my own eyes how a man is supposed to carry himself,” he says. Change, though, is difficult, and by then, Tyler was already set in his ways. Fighting, making his own path. Doing what he needed to do to get by, including getting into the street lifestyle.
“My parents were always telling me to work hard,” he says. “But then I see my cousins selling drugs. They were driving nice cars and I think, I want that.” He started selling drugs at 18. He liked the ease of it, the way he didn’t have to work for his money. Sometimes he’d get a job, mainly to make his parents happy, but he’d only keep it for a week or two, get a paycheck, and then he’d quit. A ticket from the police for possession of marijuana wasn’t anywhere near enough to make him change.
And in the end, anyway, it wasn’t drugs that put Tyler in prison. It was his old go-to: anger. Violence.
A huge part of it was the stress of becoming a father. Tyler’s girlfriend got pregnant. Any parent knows the feelings surrounding having a baby: the intense joy, but also the fear, the abject terror, of suddenly being responsible for a whole new life. “When he was born,” says Tyler. “I can’t even describe it. The first time I held him…it was a good feeling.”
Tyler tried to turn things around for his new little man. He stopped selling drugs and got a job. “I told myself I didn’t need to be doing this when I have someone to take care of.” The changes only lasted a month or two, and the teenage passions of Tyler and the baby’s mother buckled under the strain.
Then, an argument with his own mama in the front yard got loud. A neighbor came out to intervene. “I took my anger out on him,” says Tyler. He spent a week in jail before bonding out, but after that, he says, “the charges just built up on me.”
The baby’s mother put a restraining order on Tyler after he got out of jail. She was afraid for her safety and that of her son. “It messed with my head,” he says. “How can I see my son? He’s right down the street and I can’t see him. I pass the neighborhood and I can’t see him.”
And this is the part where I remind you: Tyler was only 18 years old. A child with a child of his own.
He resorted, again, to his old friends: anger. Violence.
“It was never physical,” he says. “I never put my hands on a female.” But the violence, the anger, came out through threatening phone calls. Voicemails. Text messages. He wanted to see his son, and the baby’s mother was standing in his way. He did what he thought he had to do.
Of course, we know: it wasn’t the right thing to do. But Tyler couldn’t see any other way. He wound up with a charge for criminal domestic violence and was sentenced to three years in prison. In the end, it was a good thing. “It was good to get time away from a lot of stuff,” he says. “I could sit back and reflect on things.”
That’s not to say it was easy, though. His son was only six months old when he went in. Tyler missed all the firsts: first Christmas, first birthday, first steps, first words. There were no visits. He wasn’t even allowed to send letters. The one he tried to send got him in trouble, so he resorted to writing letters, reading them, then throwing them away.
Today, Tyler is a young adult with a felony on his record. He’s come to Turning Leaf to learn a different way. A better way. “It’s the life skills I need,” he says. “Growing up, I didn’t learn a lot of those skills. My parents didn’t talk about things to me. I never saw arguments. I had no idea how to deal with stuff. So I used to shut down, and let that shit eat me up inside. Now I’m learning how to communicate.” In short: he’s growing up and learning how to deal without resorting to his old playbook.
His main goal now is to work on gaining visitation with his son. “I want to have a good relationship with him,” he says. “I want to let him know he has somebody who cares about him. I want to teach him the stuff I had to learn on my own so he’ll know how to deal with it. So he won’t be running around lost.”
* * * *
So he won’t be running around lost. Let that sink in.
Tyler was lost.
So, too, I’m sure, are many of the people in the world who try to solve problems with violence. So often, they simply need to be found.
Tyler, we’re so glad you came to Turning Leaf to find yourself and your voice. We are here with you and for you and we know you’ll succeed in making the most of your second chance.
The majority of men who come through Turning Leaf are older. We see men in their thirties, forties, and even fifties. They’ve been on the streets for decades, in and out of prison for just as long. It can take years – a lifetime, even – to decide to change, to get off the streets and away from the lifestyle.
This week we’ll meet someone different. His whole life has been rough. Complicated. An unrelenting challenge. And today, at the ripe old age of 19-years-old, he’s already had enough. He wants a better future, and he’s finding it at Turning Leaf.
This is Rome’s story.
* * * *
Rome spent his childhood in Charleston and Virginia. They spent few years here, a few years there, as his mother sought employment that would support Rome and his two brothers. A middle child, Rome was an imaginative kid, which may have helped him cope with the curveballs life continually lobbed his way. He never met or even spoke to his father, who’s been in prison for the entirety of Rome’s life.
Bouncing between states wasn’t the worst part. “We were basically homeless for parts of my childhood,” he says. They stayed in homeless shelters for months at a time. His granny was in the picture and sometimes they stayed with her, but relationships between mothers and daughters can be fraught, so sometimes his mother took her boys and set out on her own.
Rome always remembers stealing things. “Granny would be running me through the store in my stroller,” he says. “And I’d take candy and stuff. She didn’t know.” And since she didn’t know, she never told him not to do it.
By middle school, instability took its toll. Rome was placed in special education classes for students with learning disabilities, a tough label for a kid who just wants to fit in. “I wanted to make a name for myself,” he says. “I wanted people to envy me and like me.” To make that name, he turned to the street life, getting in fights and stealing items bigger than candy bars. At thirteen, he was arrested for second degree burglary and running away. He spent two months in a detention center and 45 days in an evaluation center. After that, DSS intervened when his auntie reported that Rome and his brothers weren’t being cared for by their mama, and he was sent to a group home.
“It was horrible. Like prison,” he says. The staff sometimes teamed up with children who picked on Rome, adding their voices to the fray. He learned there to try to laugh, to keep smiling, as a way to deflect further confrontation. But he never turned away from a fight, either. He still wanted to make that name for himself.
Rome was in the group home for around 14 months before he was able to return to his mama in Charleston. There, he found more trouble on the streets. He was selling weed, usually armed, and definitely in the wrong crowd.
On the night of Rome’s seventeenth birthday, he and his homeboy were chilling together when some guys called, wanting to buy weed. They walked over to meet the guys. Rome’s friend pulled out his stash, and one of the guys said, “That’s all you got?” Rome pulled out his as well. “Then, the dude tried to punch me or something,” he says. “The other dude grabbed my homeboy and tackled him. He was in motion, tackling him to the ground, and I already pulled out my gun and starting shooting.”
As you might expect, the situation only escalated. “I was mad,” he says. “They stole my weed. I was trying to get some change so I could get a haircut. I wasn’t nervous or anything. They didn’t have a gun, until they took one off my homeboy.”
“My homeboy was on the ground with one of the dudes. The other was in the corner shooting at me. I shot the dude on the ground three times, then shot the other dude. At that point, I was scared. I didn’t know what else to do. I couldn’t run and leave my homeboy.”
The girlfriend of one of the guys came out and said she was going to call the cops. “I wanted to be like, ‘Call them! Call them,’” says Rome. “But I wasn’t able to. Because then the dude pointed the gun at my homeboy’s head and told me to stop shooting. So I did. He got up, my homeboy got up, and we ran.”
Rome stopped home long enough to grab some clothes and a bag of stuff. The police arrived at his house pretty quickly, but Rome was already gone. He was on the run. He slept in cars for the next three nights, hiding out during the day. “The police got tired of looking for me so they called in the U.S. Marshals. It was kind of exciting. I mean, I got them. They couldn’t find me.”
Rome was planning on turning himself in eventually, thinking that he’d shot the other guys in self-defense, but the Marshals found him first. They hauled him off to county, where he awaited trial on two counts of attempted murder and the commission of a violent crime with a deadly. He spent eight months in county, then took a plea deal to assault and battery in the first degree and a simple marijuana possession charge. The judge took his age into account, and he was sent to Turbeville Correctional Institution for a year and a half.
In prison, the teenage boy first tried the same tack that he’d been using to get through life on the outside: he fought everyone and anyone, trying to make a name for himself. But something sort of amazing happened there – some older guys took him under their wing. “People were giving me good advice,” he says. “I read a lot of books, and some of the guys stepped up and were like a replacement for my dad. They taught me how to be a man.”
Their best advice? “The streets aren’t fun,” he says. “The streets don’t love no one. At the end of the day, you have to get out of the streets somehow.”
Even though he was young – still a teenager – he listened. He learned. He saw the men around him who were facing ten, twenty, thirty-year sentences, and he knew he didn’t want to be one of them.
When Rome got out, everything felt different. “People were beefing, but I’m not trying to have anything to do with that,” he says. His mama’s friend told them about Turning Leaf, and his mama made the call with Rome sitting by her side. At 18-years-old, he became one of the youngest students ever to join the program.
“I feel comfortable there,” he says of working and learning among much older men. “Sometimes the classes are boring. I sort of already know some of the stuff. A lot of situations in my life, I could’ve flipped out but I didn’t. I’m humble.” Still, he knows the time he spends there is incredibly valuable.
Rome is very quiet and is using his time at Turning Leaf to learn how to communicate more effectively. He is spending a lot of time these days doing deep thinking about life and spirituality. His world view has broadened.
Now, his future feels brighter. Anything is possible. “I want to have my own spot for me and my girl,” he says. “I want my own car. Maybe my own business someday. I want to be able to support my family.”
* * * *
Rome, you may be one of our youngest students ever, but you’re certainly proving yourself wise beyond your years. Life has thrown you curveballs but you’re still at the plate, and we couldn’t be more proud of you.